A master and an also-ran

MOZART & ABEL

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra

Cell Block Theatre, Darlinghurst

Friday October 23

(L to R) Julia Russoniello, Matthew Greco, Karina Schmitz, Simon Martyn-Ellis, Georgia Browne, Kirsty McCahon, Daniel Yeadon

We’ve had one Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra recital/concert already in the Melbourne Digital series; now it’s the turn of the ensemble’s Sydney chapter to keep the Richard Gill flag flying, in which undertaking they were helped considerably by having Georgia Browne’ s flute as either top line or stage-front in this program of which three-quarters was completely new to me. The organizers gave us a familiar Mozart in the D Major Flute Quartet K. 285 but balanced this with an early string quartet, K.157 in C Major. This brace was book-ended by two Carl Friedrich Abel scores: a three-movement (like everything on this night) flute quartet in A Major, unhappily juxtaposed with a work of the same genre by the younger master; and the Flute Concerto No. 5 in G Major, one of a set of six that are probably grist to every flautist’s mill these days.

A product of the Bach house through his studentship at St. Thomas’ School in Leipzig during Johann Sebastian’s years there, Abel was well known in his lifetime, notably for a time by association with Johann Christian Bach with whom he established a concert series in London. He also met the 8-year-old Mozart in that city when he himself was about 40 – which is a nice, if fleeting connection with which to yoke these two writers. But Browne has a stronger relationship with Abel’s music than most of her peers, as she has recorded this G Major Concerto (and several other flute-dominated works by this composer) with the Icelandic ensemble, Nordic Affect.

As the night turned out, Browne made the best of all possible cases for Abel through her fluent technical control and an unfailing search for variety of timbre and shape, even in the unabashedly learned pages of the concerto’s opening Allegro. As a sample of ensemble work, this score proved to be the night’s least satisfying – not because of the ARCO musicians’ expertise, but mainly because of a lack of substance from the string quintet and its one-line-per-instrument lack of ‘bloom’, as I’ve heard expert acousticians describe it. You had precision in spades, each note on the dot, but vibrato or open with no mellowing shades at all. Yes, we’ve been here before: this purity of output is a period music enthusiast’s nirvana and it is irrelevant in faster music, but middle movements from Andante down can be a trial.

It’s probably because of the continual close suggestions of a chest of viols, as though every work played here found its antecedent in a Lawes suite. This might suit some writers but you’d have to question the approach in a work like Mozart’s delectably optimistic flute quartets. Compositions where the sinews stand out – like Art of Fugue or A Musical Offering – benefit from this no-nonsense treatment but its apologists argue for a wider historical range of application than just the Baroque. At all events, one side of the argument is proposed by this organization, which is consistent in its application across the repertoire.

In the concerto, Simon Martyn-Ellis’ theorbo took on the continuo function; in this situation, his contribution came across very clearly and made its presence felt throughout in this musician’s one appearance on the program. The same could be said of Kirsty McCahon’s bass which, as always, contributed an enthusiastic line in support of her higher-pitched companions’ caperings, including those of cellist Daniel Yeadon. Even the reedy- textured violins of Matthew Greco and Julia Russoniello took on an infectious bounce in the first movement’s initial strutting tutti.

But the delight of this program constituent came in Browne’s appearance as a fore-grounded soloist in her own right, not as the top line of a quartet. Her first appearance was lengthy and, as the piece progressed, the flute’s elaborations on the opening march theme dominated proceedings. But Browne took all the tricks with an ideal placement of each note while Abel puts his soloist through a range of technical and breath-control tests; nothing flamboyant, but ever-demanding. He even managed to insert some thematic variants which Mozart might have been happy to imitate. I don’t know who wrote the cadenzas for this concerto – probably not Abel, if other manuscripts are any guide – but this one turned out sufficiently voluble and just long enough.

I think the middle Adagio was in G minor; whatever the case, these pages tested Browne’s sustaining power. She dominated the texture even more here but had to work hard because of the longer time for sweeping bow strokes allowed to the strings. To leader Matthew Greco’s credit, the pace proved sensible for all concerned; not over-weighty or insistent. Again, Browne’s cadenza brimmed with good judgement – but then, so did the ensemble’s approach, particularly in the treatment of ornamentation which emerged as it should: without fanfare or obviously basted onto a line, but just a slight disturbance in the Force.

Just how lively this ensemble can sound emerged when the Presto finale flurried into action, the results justifying the observation that this group (maybe just this section of the ARCO personnel?) sounds at its most convincing when the tempo is rapid. However, the flute gets total exposure when the tuttis end and Abel indulges in reams of rapid-fire sequence work. There’s an odd mix of the utterly predictable (thanks to repetitions, he being capable of three repetitions of a set phrase when Mozart would have been happy with two, at most) and a (in context) startling novelty, like a modulation which, in the normal run of events, was unanticipated.

Even against the light weight of a string quintet and theorbo combination, the period flute that Browne used was sometimes hard pressed to be heard, particularly when the instrument was operating inside its lowest fifth. But, in the main, the flute carved out its path with an appealing breathy quality, climaxing in yet another cadenza – which seemed unnecessary, given the amount of exercise the soloist had to put in throughout this movement. And the small ensemble brought the exercise to a gratifying end with a congenial solidarity.

Abel’s Flute Quartet in A Major Op. 12 No. 2 opened the recital with Browne taking top place above Greco, Schmitz and Yeadon. Her breath allocation made an interesting study across the opening measures of the first Un poco Allegro; indeed, it continued throughout a somewhat jumpy line that reached a finely couched oasis at a sustained E across bars 76 and 77. As far as I can tell, Browne’s transpositions – actually, translocations would be a better term – were kept to a minimum.

Browne’s melding into the fabric during the following Adagio ma non troppo showed at its subtlest during the repeated E semiquavers across bars 21 to 23. She also gave us an elegant taste of the galant in her negotiation of the appoggiaturas in bars 34 and 36, while Greco’s violin entered into a delectable partnership with Browne at bars 51-53 to put a suitable cap on proceedings. With the Tempo di Menuetto, Abel sets up a melody that is deftly shaped as a comparable piece by Mozart, but it moves into ordinariness at bars 5 and 6 when the sheen of direct speech goes astray. Greco found it hard to tamp down his attack in this movement, although Browne maintained a soft dynamic for the most part, so he’s not totally responsible for his own prominence. This last rondo is amiable without much content – a certain fluffiness around the edges made it unmemorable in itself, if a fitting vehicle to introduce the musicians without much stress brought into play.

Mozart’s own quartet coming straight after Abel’s gave Browne even more opportunity to demonstrate the breathy purity of her output while Greco, Schmitz and Yeadon brought as a counterweight their trademark lack of vibrato and open-string fear. You could pick up on phrasing differences between flute and strings (violin and viola) at certain points but more distracting was the tendency by the upper strings to employ a crescendo/diminuendo effect all over the shop. And you missed some sparks from the violin’s 2nds in places like bar 115, even if Schmitz compensated for this with her own contributions between bars 132 and 135. I missed the repetitions of both halves in this movement but that absence was not confined to this movement which nonetheless revealed a firmness and unanimity of ensemble from all involved.

Thanks to the strings’ pizzicati, the Adagio is a gift for the flautist who holds our interest across all 34 bars. Browne maintained an even melodic flow with no abrupt dynamic shifts. typified by a carefully prepared soft high D at the end of bar 21. But then, across this night none of her high notes grated. In the brilliantly happy Rondeau, Greco sounded scratchy at the throwaway gesture in bar 20 but made a more secure showing at its reappearance in bar 99; he also failed to etch a definite path through the bars’ 133-139 partial episode. You could not fault Schmitz or Yeadon in this exhilarating movement which reached a delectable pianissimo for all in the last main theme restatement beginning at bar 231, the whole set of pages taken at a brisk, not breathless, pace.

Of all players on this occasion, Yeadon had the most trouble with his tuning, his instrument affected by Sydney’s seasonal humidity. Consequently, he had to spend some time getting ready for the Mozart string quartet; then he and the other members of the group – Greco, Russoniello Schmitz – did not show at their best in a slip-shod account of the 1772 composition’s first strophes. In fact, the ensemble’s balance sounded unsettled, as in the recessed contributions from Russoniello in bars 25 to 28. A major signpost in the violins’ triple- and double-stops at bar 60 came across as laboured, although a similar construction in the last bar presented with much more acuity. Finally, I didn’t see what was gained by the insertion of a short violin cadenza at bar 74.

The group did repeat the first part of the Andante; a kind structural concession that stood out on this evening. Yet, in spite of the sensibility shown in this movement, the combined texture at points like bars 16 to 21 sounded like a piano accordion in timbre, possibly because of the octave unison between first and second violins not helped by the viola’s bland arpeggio filler. Once again, Russoniello went missing between bars 57 and 64 despite having the principal matter (what there is of it) in her part.

Greco showed to better advantage from the outset of the Presto finale as he and Russoniello were kept busy by the brisk pace and the score’s racy character, the first violin’s address best illustrated by his biting attack in the section from bar 85 onward. Despite commentators directing you to hear operatic traces in this work because Mozart was writing these quartets at the same time as Lucio Silla, this movement is memorable for its lavish use of syncopation which tends to attract the attention of performers more than giving primacy to melodic development; not that there’s much of that in these rapid-fire pages, here gifted with some suitable abruptness at the final chord.

It’s an immature work and streets away from what was going to turn up ten years later in the quartets dedicated to Haydn. But it made for an indication of what Mozart could do with inspirations that were short-stemmed. It might have gained from a less timbrally astringent handling but, as a rule, pieces of near-juvenilia need top-notch performers to lift them out of the second or third tier level they occupy in a great composer’s output.

But ARCO deserves our thanks for this exercise because, although it might not make Abel converts of us all, the occasion gave us the opportunity to revel in Browne’s expertly honed performance skills and her ability to take an also-ran score and turn it into a miniature gem.

The long and the short

NEW SOUNDS

Alex Raineri and Angus Wilson

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday October 10

Angus Wilson

So what do we do from now on? This is the last of the recitals in this Festival sequence – the end of music-making in Brisbane for the year . . . well, the production of music that is reliable, serious and regular by nature. Yes, you expect some other bodies to put up their hands to present the odd program, and so some of them have done. But we have come to rely on Alex Raineri and his organization to supply us with fortnightly events of musical value. From here on, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall has the field all to itself as far as generating streamed material of consequence goes.

Raineri has a big reputation for interpreting contemporary music and his wind-up for 2020 played to this strength. The night featured first performances of four Australian compositions, all written by Raineri’s peers and colleagues associated with the avant-garde Kupka’s Piano enterprise: Samantha Wolf, Jakob Bragg, Hannah Reardon-Smith and Jodie Rottle. These works featured piano and percussion – usually vibraphone, handled by Angus Wilson who is another Kupka associate.

Agreable as it was to hear these fresh works, they were all – deliberately, or by chance – brief. So the duo gave at least half of their allotted time to an import in John Luther Adams’ ten-year-old Four Thousand Holes which requires two-to-six musicians but also has a continuous electronic underpinning. This non-live component doesn’t actually do much except swell and diminish, ending as it began after a half-hour-plus round-the-block hegira. The human contributors to this reading were Raineri on piano – staying at the keyboard throughout, I think, rather than making forays under the lid – and Wilson handling vibraphone and glockenspiel, following the composer’s requirement for ‘metallic percussion sounds’.

This performance was bedevilled near its beginning by several cuts in transmission: some of them short, then later dilating to the point where the broadcaster had to put up a web-site frame. After the transmission was completed, Raineri posted a tape of the complete recital for those feeling short-changed by these missing fragments. I dutifully went back to hear the first moves in Adams’ work – never look a gift horse, etc. – but this extra exposure achieved very little in my case. To be frank, I rather enjoyed the moments of unintentional disruption; probably a generational overload of Cage-ean yearning for any signs of Zen in music, according to which there are no mistakes or flaws, even if there are. But I delighted in those passages where the sound came back intact while the players were freeze-framed in action.

As for what the live performers had to do, the essentials seemed to be plenty of chords from the piano, mainly major, and single notes from the percussion, although I’m probably wrong about that because Wilson kept two sticks/mallets ready in both hands; still, it seemed to me that his function was essentially pointillist while the piano amplified the ongoing electronic stream with chords that drifted in and out of consonance with it.

Actually, the in-and-out breaths of this sonorous back-cloth became annoying, possibly because of an absence of variety – harmonic, polyphonic, rhythmic: you name it – but chiefly because the mesh wound up sounding like an accordion and, given the unadventurous nature of its construction, a particularly elementary. Young Talent Time-reminiscent one. You’d suppose that all these long periods of stasis would engender a sympathy with Adams’ emotional landscape, which involves the wide open spaces of America’s northernmost state, residence in which shaped the composer’s aesthetic aspirations.

Wilson used both keyboards, sometimes by themselves, sometimes at the same time but the chief memory of his activity remains those single note patterns. Yet, even when his dynamic was at its most compelling and Raineri’s chords ranged widest, the work’s process and progress comprised a haze, scintillations breaking through but not intended to jar against the prevailing sound continuum. After a while, you were tempted to abandon hope of any analysis and just suppress the critical, sinking into the repetitions and the glowing taped-sound stratum. All that was missing was a chain of visuals, like sub-Arctic landscapes of snow and ice-filled vistas until the instruments stopped and the tape drew to its elongated diminuendo conclusion (in E Major?).

You are in sync with Adams or you’re not; he isn’t of the same ilk as the big-name minimalists and ‘modernists’ who can often enrage with their futility or pretension, but he works on a Cinemascope level in which the natural world fundamental is idealised. It’s easy to go along with this cosmic humming, the musical equivalent of a lengthy ‘Om’, but I’ve been suspicious for many years of works that ask you to ignore all that you know and surrender to a benign intellectual coma. For all that, both players did the composer excellent service with a reading that outstripped two other recorded interpretations that I’ve heard recently, their superior in exerting personality and finding space in an aural area where both were difficult to achieve.

Each of the Australian premieres was preceded by a taped short address from its composer, most of them revisiting topics that had already been made public in Raineri’s interviews, published on the internet some days before the event itself. Wolf’s Bull in A China Shop set piano and vibraphone in bitonal competition, the most interesting moments coming when both instruments played the same melody line in their own specific tonalities – the effect rather like an organ Mixture stop. You were hard pressed to find anything aggressively taurine here, particularly during the substantial middle section reminiscent of Pagodes that moved into a vibraphone ostinato supporting 5th-heavy piano chords. A moderate degree of deftness appeared in the final ‘fast’ section that had more than a touch of Bernstein in his dance mode about it.

Both players worked inside the piano for Bragg’s Nest of gravel in which the sounds produced related strongly to the composer’s desire to suggest the granular and dessicated. Wilson mounted a slightly grating ostinato with wire-brush strokes on the upper strings, graduating from one hand to two in the piece’s later reaches. Raineri contributed his own bevy of scrapes on the lower range of the instrument, using a variety of wood and (I think) plastic strips as well as various sticks while complementing his scrapes and block glissandi with punctuating stopped notes. The physical presentation looked device-heavy as we were confronted with a wide gamut of effects. Whether the whole thing lived up to its backdrop aims of illuminating COVID-19 lockdown life and the constricted world of refugees still imprisoned on fast-decaying Pacific islands depends on your response to auditory stimuli, of which this brief score offered a sizeable amount.

Reardon-Smith’s three questions of scale appeared to be over too soon for anything much to land. Her first movement, three ants carry a dead wasp/east coast-west coast fires, had Raineri operating inside his piano with a long stick ending in a knob, producing single notes both struck and stopped. Wilson’s vibraphone confined itself to single notes. The composer’s debt to Morton Feldman seemed most apparent in this section. The next segment, the continuous trickle of my cat’s drinking fountain/the port of beirut explosion, impressed for its unsettling mobility. Here, the pianist scratched out sounds with two drum-sticks and both players interchanged range areas to produce a mobile fretwork of sonorities, Wilson’s contribution enriched by two cow-bells. At its climax, the work simply stopped, the narrative halting with nothing left to say.

Finally, mould growing inside an unopened tub of coconut yoghurt/we have all run out of medicare-supported therapy sessions saw Raineri at the keyboard for an array of single notes, indulging in a pin-pricking intersection with the vibraphone. The content of this movement moved between the frantic, including one wild piano passage, and the refined. Wilson’s cowbells weren’t struck but patted and tapped near the end, the piano mirroring this reticence with isolated blips.

These comments are quickly-noted gleanings from a run-through that left little time for awareness of much beyond texture. Added to that, you were confronted with the same problem as the Adams work presents: how much do you invest in any composer-derived information? Reardon-Smith’s movement titles split into halves where one is highly personal, the other broader in its implications – even the last with its reference to a national health crisis. But does either half help you to understand the composer’s intentions? It’s an open question to which – of course – there’s no definite answer.

Last of the Australian quartet, Rottle’s Public Figure springs from the composer’s interest on how personalities use the internet and associated media to make their names. Another score for piano and vibraphone, it revealed some early dexterity with both instruments playing the same notes in unison, then just after each other, the piano’s right hand and the vibraphone working into catchy off-beat rhythms before Wilson picked up a large string-instrument bow to create an all-too-familiar unearthly effect, then gave the same soft treatment to a stray cymbal.

Raineri moved inside his piano for some short glissandi while the bowed vibraphone helped generate a cleverly atmospheric interlude – soft, with threadbare action – before the piano regained authority against a brushed cymbal and, from nowhere, emerged a five-note motif that brought memories of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to this irreverent mind. I started to wonder about the tuning in some of the piano’s lower notes but was taken aback by the subtle, inconclusive ending: a parable of the quest for public recognition, maybe.

Here was an ambitious program, a striking ending to the Festival’s 10-event series. It’s hard to emphasize to onlookers how much we are indebted to Raineri – and his guests – for keeping live music-making alive here. With limited resources, he has presented a splendid variety of programs in which we were lucky to enjoy several excellent interpretations. This final one had the added benefit of giving a small showcase to four young local voices, in which endeavour Wilson and Raineri demonstrated an unflinching probity, despite the physical (and, one hopes, transitory) handicap that the percussionist had to endure and the shared necessity of coping with such disparate creations.

We’re all in this together

THE ROMANTICS

Trish Dean, Alex Raineri, Paul Dean

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday September 26

                                                                        Trish Dean

Last weekend’s recital in the Festival sequence featured three musicians  –  two from Brisbane’s versatile Ensemble Q, and the Festival’s own presiding genius: Ensemble co-directors  Trish Dean and Paul Dean, and pianist Alex Raineri.   For this event, we were back at the usual site in Bowen Terrace studio for another close-quarters affair.   All musicians participated in the Clarinet Trio by Brahms of 1891; then, Trish Dean and Raineri launched into Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata, written a decade after the trio.   A Romantic program, for sure, and one celebrating the last fruits of that era  . . .  sort of; Strauss was still indulging himself in lushness over 40 years after 1901, and many writers have persisted with that creative strand to the present day – well, it’s easier than inventing your own path, isn’t it?

From the outset of the Brahms work’s Allegro, Raineri displayed a performance-enhancing ease, a supple quality when treating the unsettling triplets that disturb the equanimity at bars 13 and 14, only to erupt powerfully eight bars further on when the keyboard comes into its own.    Still, the pianist kept his swamping potential well under control, probably taking a few leaves from Paul Dean who did the right chamber music thing and took a mellow, restrained  view of his part, apparent in the unforced top line between bars 71 and 82 and later, in tandem with Trish Dean, maintaining a welcome dynamic clarity in the close duet beginning at bar 96.

In its overall shape, this movement was typified by a calm surface, any tension coming in sporadic outbursts like Raineri’s two explosions starting at bar 127.   If anything, the cello line took overall prominence with an ardent attack and lots of crescendodiminuendo surges inside phrases, best seen during an impeccable duet for clarinet and cello from bar 189 up to the poco meno Allegro on this movement’s last page. the whole coming to rest with excellent balance.

Each player enjoys a wealth of exposure in the second movement Adagio, Trish Dean’s cello an early aspiring delight in the slow semiquavers of bar 7.   But the ensemble had prepared these pages carefully, with a finely judged rubato at work in the decrease of tension from bar 19.   By the time the players had reached bar 31 with its antiphonal clarinet/cello interplay, you were quite confident in these interpreters, who went the full Romantic in those generous textures obtaining from bar 41 until the last 10 measures where the linear interweaving proved touchingly eloquent.

Raineri treated the Andante grazioso with further suppleness, keeping his left-hand contributions mobile but not attention-grabbing when shape and accent changed.   Later, in the D Major trio, the pianist gave excellent service in his three-fold treatment of the main melody, notably in his deftly crafted third statement where a temptation looms large to overstate your case.   To their credit, all three executants captured the not-too-rustic lilt of these happy pages.

Right from the first page, Trish Dean engaged with the Allegro finale, delivering her isolated semiquavers with bite and setting an urgency of attack in play for her colleagues.  Raineri made a brave display at the first of the ‘gypsy’ outbursts in bar 58; it’s not difficult to get through, but here it was treated with a scene-setting brio that carried all before it, even to an electric shaft of light from everyone at bar 128.   Each episode, each reversion and reshaping glowed as Brahms swept to his determined A minor conclusion.  In the recital hall, this performance would have been greeted with acclaim for its balance, ensemble and drive; let’s hope that the days are not far off when we can once again show well-merited enthusiasm in public.

A different story in the sonata.  Both Raineri and Trish Dean presented a languorous Lento before letting us know that aggression was forming the backbone of a work where the cello often has to work hard to be heard.   Raineri made strong work of his staccato chords introducing the movement’s main body, then gave a sweeping, rubato-rich enunciation of the second subject.  Mercifully, the exposition was repeated so that Dean’s soaring moments could be savoured; yet, the players made an excellent match for the shared vigour of their attack, as witnessed by their treatments of that second theme, the cello giving a sensible and sensitive shape to each phrase.   While the keyboard enjoys the dominant role, Raineri gave place  at difficult moments, like Dean’s mid-development pizzicati.   Mind you, when solo chances came, he wasn’t one to hold back as at the 14-bar  hectic interlude preceding Rachmaninov’s return to duet work.   Each player milked the second subject’s return with possibly even more Romantic endeavour than before, but Dean hit on a golden seam at the (largely) G Major Un poco più mosso segment: sweetly engaging lyricism with a moving near-vocal responsiveness before Raineri urged her into the brisk A tempo hurtle to the finish line.

You might have asked for cleaner definition from both players of the near-full C minor descending scale that gives the Allegro scherzando its impetus; they galloped rapidly enough but a lot of sotto voce material flew pretty much under the radar.  A well-positioned vein of sentiment came at the change to E flat Major at the Un poco meno mosso point, Dean urging out a persuasive continuous line at this point.   Just as well that she took her opportunities because the movement’s outer reaches are piano-heavy, more so as the motion fragments towards the conclusion – here handed to us with a well-judged pair of perdendi.

Was there a late entry from the cello in bar 9 of the mellifluous Andante?  I was following the score in a desultory fashion, but it seemed to me that Raineri did a bit of filler before Dean joined in with her main theme restatement.   Later, the cello’s first fortissimo marking sounded under-powered for such a dramatic moment, but both performers were having their way with the dynamics of these pages, best seen at the climax to this Andante where the descent from Rachmaninov’s heights enjoyed a wealth of well-sited rubato.   Not for the first time, Raineri showed his worth as a sometime-supporting player in his allowance of space for his partner across these pages, both rhythmically and dynamically.

Finally, a heady rush into the Allegro mosso from the piano’s initial flourish.   I admired the assurance of this start but delighted in Dean’s D Major second-subject statement – the cello enjoying the splendid breadth of this moment – and took even more pleasure in this theme’s restatement in faux-canon with the piano a page later.   Even more so, it seems, than in previous movements, the piano encounters virtuosic explosions across this Allegro with bar after bar of full repeated chords in both hands. gestures which have strayed in from the Piano Concerto No. 2.

About this stage of the performance, Dean started showing signs of fatigue in reaching for her top notes; not too often, and rarely two times running, but just enough to be worrying.    Yet much could be ignored when faced with the expressive power of the second theme’s restatement at he final Moderato (come prima) direction where the composer lingers over his tender melody, unwilling to give it up until coerced by the need for a concluding racy Vivace and yet another brilliant coda. 

Here was a full-blooded program, living up as much as it could to its era-encompassing title, delivering to us a pair of essentially optimistic works performed with a valuable musical acumen by three of this city’s top professionals.   It’s intense experiences like this that generate good humour and gratitude in testing times, even to those of us who have enjoyed a pretty easy time of it.   Events like these keep your faith alive in hopes for a revival of public performance, despite the ignorance and disdain for art shown every day by governmental charlatans of all stripes.

 

 

 

 

 

Complementary shades of the spectrum

BRAHMS & STRAUSS

Australian National Academy of Music

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall Passport Series

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday September 11

                                                               Daniel Chiou

                                                           Leanne McGowan

I can’t imagine what young National Academy musicians have been doing to fill their days throughout these lean times.   Plenty of practice, of course, but that occupation palls when there are no alternatives.   Of course, young ANAMites from Melbourne are in a worse case than some of their interstate colleagues because of the state’s entirely appropriate lock-down.   Up here in the Palaszczuk Palatinate (which may turn into a Frecklington Fiefdom if a sufficiently large local wedge of neo-Trumpists have their way), the social contract is comparatively flexible and musicians of all stripes can talk, drink and ignore AFL fixtures with only minor restrictions imposed,

Four ANAM musicians made up the performing list at this third recital in a four-part Brisbane festival presented under the MDCH banner.   Organizer and presiding genius of the Brisbane Music Festival, Alex Raineri, accompanied one of the two works on Saturday evening’s program; he was lucky enough to work at ANAM from 2014 to 2016.  The other three musicians involved in this Brahms/Strauss night are in different boats.  Cellist Daniel Chiou was meant to have started at ANAM this year; for all I know, he might have got in a few months there before darkness fell.   Ditto pianist Caleb Salizzo who was the other pianist involved with this occasion.   Fortunately for her, violinist Leanne McGowan spent 2019 at the South Melbourne academy, but I’m assuming that she’s been seeing out her past five months in Brisbane, enduring a state of exile from all Garden State delights.

Full marks, then, to Christopher Howlett and Adele Schonhardt for including these Queensland players – and several others, like Ensemble Q and the Southern Cross Soloists – in their Victoria-based digital initiative which goes from strength to strength in raising some income for career-strapped professionals across the country.   Compared to other and much bigger organizations, MDCH is the most outstanding contributor to sustaining and nurturing live music performance and creativity- even if all efforts have to be confined to soloists and chamber groups.

Saturday night offered two sonatas: Brahms No. 2 in F for cello and piano,  and Strauss’s youthful Violin Sonata Op. 18.   As the readings progressed, I was deeply impressed by the assurance of both duos in their treatment of scores that hold difficulties and demands of various types.    Both sonatas can be linked under a Late Romantic heading and contain passages of luscious clutter.   But technical and interpretative mishaps occurred rarely, by their nature not enough to disturb any listener’s perceptions of the executants’ fluency and insights.

Chiou and Silizzo have made the Brahms sonata a specialty of their combined repertoire, as you can see on social media.   They also form two-thirds of the Islay Trio, so their performance qualities would be pretty well-known to each other.   Further, they had a large canvas or two on which to operate.   The work itself is big-boned, although every repetition is precious to us enthusiasts and its opening Allegro vivace a marvel of vital enthusiasm.  Then, by some remarkable administrative dealing, the recital was given in the Concert Hall of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre which gifted the players with a resonance, a powerful bloom of sonority that is absent in the dryer acoustic of Raineri’s studio, from which site most of the Brisbane Music Festival recitals I’ve heard have emanated.

Chiou swept into the first movement’s broad and sweeping main theme with drive and a well-honed sense of phrasing, Silizzo surging into prominence with a firm peroration between bars 33 and 39, revisited with just as much power between bars 144 and 150 – both stand-out passages in an intelligent reading.   But Brahms rewards his interpreters with a beautifully-judged preparation for the recapitulation at bar 128: one of those moments where you mentally gasp with relief that your anticipation has been rewarded with such brio.

You could take plenty of enjoyment from Chiou’s clear line and unfailingly accurate articulation despite two sustained-note patches where he came close to running out of bow.   But the collaboration itself proved unstintingly sympathetic, notably in the last page’s tremolando alternation where what could be an unstructured mess came across with fine definition.   And I appreciated the punch in those last irregular five bars that end with the cello’s brusque quadruple-stop chord.   Your ears open with the rhythmic mixture starting at bar 10 of the Adagio affettuoso when Brahms begins his displacement of the obvious.  But the rest of this movement was a lesson in excellent pointing-up of fabric like  Salizzo’s determined ritenuto across bars 18 and 19, the vocal eloquence from Chiou in the 12 bars before the change of key signature to F sharp Major, the cellist’s pliant pizzicato dynamics straight after this change and his surge to prominence at bar 54, both players’ carefully paced piano to pianissimo in the last measures.

By the time the Allegro passionato came around, an out-of-tune E flat 5 was proving a distraction.   Salizzo soldiered on, too hard-pressed in these pages to worry about tamping down the note (as if anyone could).   The spiky interchanges leading to unison work beginning at bar 109 stood out for their insistence, but the pianist showed his tact by restraining the keyboard’s sforzando explosions at bars 156 and 157 to give Chiou carrying space.  The cellist showed himself quite able to introduce a period gesture with some light portamenti, as at the octave leap at bar 178.   But both musicians relished Brahms’ hemiola passages, giving them room to flow rather than belting them into the ground of obviousness.

At the final Allegro molto, the off E flat seemed to have been joined in discomfort by its neighbouring E.   Chiou struck a gold seam with his lyrical outline of the main theme beginning at bar 45 – not overbearing, but combining zeal with melancholy: a real accomplishment in this music.   And then, a sudden shock through a premonition of Shostakovich at bar 102 where bare octaves and pizzicati prefigure the Russian composer’s fighting stance; over in a few seconds but alarming for all sorts of reasons, not least the challenge to your perspicacity, or otherwise.   Despite that anomaly, here was a persuasive setting-out of this ‘problem’ movement that presents as too amiable for its surrounds but is a leisurely capping-stone to a score that spreads itself out, at ease with its Rubensesque plumpness.   If this is what the Chiou/Salizzo duo can accomplish with minimal ANAM exposure, its future is packed with promise.

After an intervallic address by Virginia Taylor from ANAM’s flute faculty in which she extolled the values of that splendid finishing school, McGowan and Raineri launched into the Strauss sonata, unfortunately (for the pianist) pitched in E flat.   If anything, the violinist proved just as ardent as Chiou, forging a bright path across the first page and only slightly questionable pitching 14 bars before the espressivo e appasionato change to common time.   Still, the high B flat three bars into that section was justifiably confident and ringing.   Later on, in the movement’s development,. the artists demonstrated how to dovetail successfully, showing no signs of waiting around for cues or for the other player to hit the marks with deliberation.   Closer to the end at the mit lebhafter Steigerung direction, the collaboration raised the harmonically rich excitement level, even if Strauss’s actual harmonic structure isn’t that novel.

Sorry to be carping, but the piano’s D6 was also sounding a tad unhappy at bar 21 of the following Andante cantabile, although such details dissipated when the A flat tonality gave way to a passionate Erlkönig interlude that in turn yielded to a Rosenkavalier precursor stuffed with pianissimo curlicues and brief ornamental figures.  Then,  both performers laid on their sweetness of timbre when the movement changed back to A flat for an  inevitable return to base with Raineri almost nonchalantly burbling out his continuously arpeggio-rich support.

The pianist seemed to enjoy the finale’s flamboyance, even when severely pressed as near the start when his part turned to C minor and the right hand’s high chord work came over as rough.   To add to the mix, the piano’s G4 was enjoying some pitch-wavering.   Luckily, your attention became more and more engaged by the bitzer nature of this Andante/Allegro, especially when Mendelssohnian rapid-motion dialogues sounded out at two stages.   McGowan’s lavish bowing force enriched the final fervour even before the composer’s call for a stringendo leading into the triple forte declamation that anticipates the Till Eulenspiegel-style conclusion.

Raineri quite properly insisted on giving his part full weight, holding back not a whit in loud duet sections and, given more preparation time, McGowan might have acclimatised better to the pianist’s tendency to let the devil take the hindmost and go for broke, particularly when spurred to do so by a lot of athletic weltering around the Strauss estate.  Still, this mixed pair proved to be a scintillating one, well able to push accurately through many pages that ask executants to juggle with accents and awkward off-the-pulse entries and exits.   As an exhibition of ANAM past and present, this sonata was exceptionally positive.

 

 

Always a cut above

TRANSFIGURED

Selby & Friends

City Recital Hall

Monday August 31

(L to R) Grace Clifford, Kathryn Selby, Stefanie Farrands, Maxime Bibeau, Julian Smiles

Back in pre-Plague days when musical organizations could safely plan a year in advance, Kathryn Selby mapped out her 2020 season, doing the right thing by balancing the popular with the should-be-popular.   For the August/September program, she was to begin each night with Mozart’s last piano trio, the K. 564 in G Major.  Then, in line with the program’s title – A Night Transfigured – we were to hear Schönberg’s sextet Verklärte Nacht in the piano trio arrangement by Edward Steuermann.   Finally came that old favourite, Schubert in B flat D.898.   Guests for the event were violinist Natalie Chee and cellist Julian Smiles.

Bending to necessity, the format had to change pretty substantially for the studio-broadcast situation that is now the only way to keep professional music practice alive.  Smiles remained on board, but Grace Clifford substituted for Chee in the Mozart trio, which survived into the modified program.   Out went the Schönberg; in came the final Brahms piano quartet, No. 3 in C minor where Selby, Clifford and Smiles were partnered by violist Stefanie Farrands.   And the Schubert work changed from that expansive piano trio to the Trout Quintet in A Major, for which the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s long-time bass player Maxime Bibeau came into the party.  

Selby’s keyboard work in the Mozart set a high standard by its pellucid attack on the 8-bar first theme of the opening Allegro.  Clifford achieved a similar clarity but her style of delivery presented as cautious across the first pages.   As with more Mozart works than you can count, the development was over before you had time to take it in, but we eventually heard Smiles in a solo at bar 98, revisiting material that belonged to the upper string voice further back (bar 22).   Still,  Selby took parting honours with three flawless trills on the last line.

The second movement series of variations found Clifford weaving a highly sympathetic line for the first; Smiles showed himself as carefully supple as ever throughout No. II with a nicely judged hesitation on the A flat highlight in bar 13; Selby made herself a presence in Variation III but Clifford shone out without having to force her tone.   Selby scored again in the next sequence,  her elegantly formed phrases enjoying cadential commentary from the string duo – a process that continued in the minore Variation V.  The piano finally yielded place again to Clifford in the last segment, Selby muffling her demi-semiquavers yet keeping their flow discernible, not reduced to an impressionistic mumble.  And I don’t think you could have wanted a gentler coda, Clifford taking on the passage-work with suitable reserve.

Again, you could not fault the Allegretto/Rondo‘s initial statement from Selby: a clean pair of heels shown, without any vulgarity in the skipping 6/8 melody.   Clifford found a welcome force in her leading statements at bars 61 and 117.   Another pleasure came from Selby’s clipped gruppetti from bars 72 to 83, carried off with no sign of strain.   Just before the end, Clifford and Smiles produced a lyrically melting moment between bars 133 and 137 – the ideal lead-in to Mozart’s heartbreakingly optimistic conclusion.   In sum, an excellent rendering of this poised masterpiece.

A sombre build-up in the Brahms’ Allegro non troppo eventually exploded at bar 31 in typical defiance, but nothing thrashed out excessively.  Still, I relished the determination of the ensemble in their surge and ebb up to the magnificent E flat resolution at bar 102.  Throughout, the players had the measure of the score, displaying many heartening passages of execution, like Smiles’ impeccable phrasing in the descent at bar 142, and Bramble’s full-bodied lower voice in collaboration with Clifford immediately after.  But then, Farrands is a fine violist with an unwavering sense of pitch; as proof, you only had to hear her substantial solo arc from bar 252 onward: a true and individual voice which matched her violin companion in sheer sweetness of timbre.  Then, after the stress came a moving conclusion with fine growling from all three strings across the last three bars.

As in the Mozart first movement, Selby excelled in the quartet’s Scherzo/Allegro, combining impulsiveness with firm security of accents, on the beat and off.   The upper strings made an ideal match in an octave duet starting at bar 72.   Actually, while you take Selby as a given positive factor in music of this nature, you were hard pressed to find the other quartet members wanting, particularly in moments of dynamic crisis like the fortissimo leaps that begin at bar 54.   Yet again, the violin line could have contributed more prominently to the mix at the trio oases of bars 177 and 184; Selby, on the other hand, kept her power leashed at the string octaves leading to the weltering last measures.

The work’s Andante, its splendid core, opened with a well-rounded line from Smiles that remained present even when Clifford took the tune over.   My score has a molto dolce direction for all three strings starting at bar 34/35, and all responded sensitively, treading light paths up to the melting sixths beginning at bar 54.   Farrands gave way to Clifford at bars 70 and 75 in a telling instance of a musician knowing her place despite the inciting availability of double-stops.   Even better came at bar 94 which begins the unequalled pathos of this movement’s ending, these performers observing a breathless deceleration at bar 119, the instrumental mix balanced to an ideal degree.

After this, it might have been too much to expect an equally effective Allegro commodo finale.   From the beginning, Clifford had trouble projecting, to the point where her line seemed too wispy a creature at bar 21, then underplaying her soprano role at the chorale interludes beginning at bar 75.   Selby maintained her clarity of output in the piano’s rhythmic ducks and drakes, especially when Brahms began his galumphing two sets of triplet crotchets across the bar.   Shine-out moments came in a violin/cello duet at bar 270 where Smiles and Clifford merged to telling effect for 12 ardent measures; then, another  – almost a long-anticipated relief – when Selby thundered out the chorale at bar 311; and finally, Smiles’ grinding sustained low C from bar 351 to the positive last chords.

I’ve rarely come across this work in live performance.  But the same could be said for most piano quartets, probably because it’s hard to assemble four players with enough interpretative synchronicity to do such scores justice.   So this drama-packed Brahms made an excellent replacement for the Schönberg sextet arrangement, not least because its finale brought to mind that of Mendelssohn’s compelling C minor Piano Trio, although the later composition hid its seams more competently.

Schubert’s quintet, on the other hand, attracts musicians despite its odd instrumentation and resultant problems of balance.   It always brings about a strange relief when the main body of the first Allegro vivace gets under way at  bar 25 and you can settle down to revel in the composer’s benevolent melodies and watch the players’ collaborating in a work that is so formally straightforward and clear-speaking.   Viola and cello emitted delicate triplets from bar 38, leaving the foreground to violin and piano before subsuming everyone into their pattern.   Indeed, this work suited Clifford very well, allowing her trademark clarity and elegance plenty of scope.

You wanted balance and equanimity?  You had instances galore, one of the best emerging from the company at bar 93 after one of Selby’s  pointed solos.   When Bibeau got his six-measure exposure at bar 165, what you noticed was the evenness of his delivery – a melody, rather than a special effect.   Later at bar 260, violin and cello canoned efficiently while the supporting trio kept their station without moving in on the important interplay.  And the ensemble’s precision of delivery in Schubert’s brilliantly contrived dynamic about-turns and gripping drive, even across rests, made for a well-accomplished resolution to this (for some of us) not-quite-long-enough movement, even with a repeated exposition.

Still moving on a different plane to other chamber music we’ve heard in the lockdowns and population embargoes so far, Selby and her colleagues took us through a splendidly shaped Andante, the only question concerning pause-emphases on the initial fp notes in bars 19 to 22 which added punctuation, certainly, but made too much of slight harmonic changes.   Another sample of first-rate ensemble stood out between bars 36 and 60 where the even delivery from all participants demonstrated how to achieve Schubert’s mix of light rhythmic snap and throwaway melody.  As in the Mozart trio, Selby’s disciplined trills proved a delight, and the viola cello duet in thirds from bar 84 took us to one of the evening’s high-points for its probity of articulation and dynamic synchronicity.

The group’s output could have endured more forwardness from the top two lines at the Scherzo‘s opening, although the lines proved to be better balanced the further along the movement ran.   Fortunately, the Trio was consistent throughout: a brilliant interplay of texture, dynamic and attack.   A particularly effective patch of play came with the fiedel texture produced by Clifford and Farrands in exposed breaks such as between bars 59 and 62 – bringing the country to the city in the nicest way.

So we arrived at the eponymous song with variations.   The opening gambit for strings alone came across with a suitably placid charm, avoiding any over-insertion of swooping mid-phrase crescendi.  By Variation II, Clifford was well played-in, giving us an attractive and pliant decorative upper line; Selby delivered an object lesson in phrasing during the next segment where the keyboard dominates.   Again, the ensemble work shone in Variation IV, everybody tailoring themselves for that initial group of fortissimo four bars and the subsequent sinking back to soft duets and imitations.  Smiles in the tenor clef produced a well-honed hauptstimme in the next strophe of 27 bars before we arrived at the lied proper with Selby reassuring us that we were home and hosed with the familiar accompaniment while Clifford and Smiles shared the – finally – jaunty melody en clair before that throat-catching, simply put final four bars.

As with the preceding four movements, the Allegro giusto finale seemed packed with well-graduated passages, like the expert softening of texture from bars 61 to 78: not particularly inspired material but these people made a gift out of slim materials.   Still, this movement is a driving one, constantly coming back to the initial violin/viola opening theme and the composer happy to offer a repetition as an alternative to formal development.  By the way, most ensembles leave out the first half’s repetition; it might be a minority opinion but I would have welcomed hearing those pages again, given the ebullience of this reading which entered unstintingly into the underlying build-up/release pattern of these pages. 

This mobile movement kept you on the edge of your seat, involved with the process despite the ‘heavenly length’ of its precedents.   As a whole, the performance projected a wealth of positive elements, realising the score’s underpinning glories: a melodic brilliance exceptional even for Schubert, rhythmic juxtapositions of remarkable fluency, subtle dynamic development to soften the edges, and an unflinching assurance of language across leisurely paragraphs.  Nevertheless, despite the elevated quality of this quintet, the Brahms work proved to be the program’s focus, mainly for its emotional consistency, no matter how tragic the composer’s world-view during its gestation.

 

 

 

 

Here come the young

FANTASY

Dario Scalabrini, Shuhei Lawson, Alex Raineri

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday August 29

                                                                 Shuhei Lawson

Another offering from he Brisbane Music Festival, this recital featured festival director Alex Raineri once again engaging in keyboard partnership with some guests.  In this case, we heard cellist Shuhei Lawson who contributed to the last event in this series, playing a part in the Aria from Villa Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5.  As well, Raineri presented clarinettist Dario Scalabrini.   Both visitors were labelled ‘young artists’ – which they are in age, for sure, and inferentially, young in experience.   That lack of public exposure became momentarily obvious as the evening moved forward, yet most of the problems I could discern were fixable, given more time for preparation.

Raineri and his visitors gave us three works: the Poulenc Clarinet Sonata of 1962, dedicated to the composer’s friend Honneger; Schumann’s Drei Fantasiestücke Op. 73 with Lawson substituting for the original clarinet as the composer permitted; and a work which brought all three participants together in Bruch’s Eight Pieces Op. 83, written in 1910 (and showing that fertile Max stuck to his melodic last, even while the  trajectory of music history was on the verge of vaulting in extraordinary directions) with another composer-approved substitution, this time of cello for viola.

For reasons best known to themselves, the musicians split Bruch’s eight pieces into two groups of four, playing one set at the program’s start and another to wind up proceedings.  As a job lot, the trios are richly Romantic and the effect of all of them together might have proved too glutinous, especially in company with Schumann’s rhapsodies and the blunt spikes of Poulenc’s sonata.   But there must have been a bit more to it as the division was not a numerically serial one.   At the beginning we heard Nos. 6, 2, 8 and 4; to end, Nos. 3, 1, 7 and 5 – all the evens and odds in separate clusters.   This process evoked memories of a one-time common practice of splitting up symphony movements with irrelevant intermezzi; if it was good enough for Haydn and Beethoven, then . . . 

The ensemble began with Bruch No. 6, Nachtgesang.   Raineri did little to observe the detached notes in his left-hand arpeggios but the direction was difficult to carry out, unless you slowed the nocturne down to a glacial speed.   Scalabrini suffered a squawk a bar after the change to Un poco meno lento, and Lawson missed out on some of the viola’s clarinet-line doubling a few bars after Letter E which was hardly his fault but a pity, all the same. Like most of what followed, this lyric proved to be a gift for  a pair of players eager to enter the score’s fulsome emotional web.

No. 2 sounded fluent, Raineri establishing a rippling B minor undercurrent for his colleagues in a set of pages that rarely challenged anybody.   In the E flat minor No. 8, both clarinet and cello made a fittingly dour and hollow combination in doubled/unison passages, particularly the stretch after Letter C which came over with engrossing force.  Raineri maintained a steady pulse through this charged and dynamically fluctuating work.   And he bore the brunt of the labour for No. 4, a romp for piano leading from D minor to D Major and operating in almost non-stop triplets and sextuplets against the steady crotchet/minim melodic output from clarinet and cello,   To his credit, Raineri got nearly all the notes and couldn’t avoid staying in the limelight for most of its duration as he negotiated the piece’s volatile onrush.

Back to the more familiar Schumann triptych and both Lawson and Raineri luxuriated in the Zart und mit Ausdruck direction, weaving a languid web which reached a high-water mark at the diminuendo from Raineri across bars 57 and 58, preceding an eloquently restrained conclusion.   An excellently couched response came in the Lebhaft, leicht movement, full of proposition/response work and here accomplished with an infectious ardour.   A momentary lapse of cohesion marred bar 48; I don’t know why because the duet motion is very straightforward.   But the only other problem came after bar 67 where the players treated the diminuendo direction to equate with decelerando, whereas I think the work ends more fetchingly if the pace is sustained right up to the final piano arpeggios.

Both players made fine work of the concluding Rash und mit Feuer, with some exceptional moments like Raineri’s deft negotiation of the switch from syncopation to block chords at bars 21 to 22; like the partnership across the whole block from bar 34 to bar 47;  like the cello’s ecstatic melodic arch from bars 74 to 78.   In fact, this movement proved to be one of the recital’s finer moments, showing an exemplary insight into Schumann’s urgent drive across fast movements and the architectural functionality of his block repetitions.

Scalabrini and Raineri ran through the Poulenc sonata’s outer movements with keen eyes for their frenetic undertones, pulling back for the signature expressive melodic interludes.   I’m not as enamoured with this score as with the Flute Sonata, which impresses as a pinnacle of French 20th century chamber music.   But, for all that inbuilt bias, I could still admire the brio of the duo’s assault on the first movement Allegro tristamente, Scalabrini making a brave showing until the whole bar pianissimo trill at bar 9 where reducing his power proved a difficult feat; and more obviously, nine bars after Figure 9 where a note went missing in the B/E minor arpeggios.   Both musicians responded very ably to the changes in texture and dynamic, at their best on the last page where the brusque leading motive sinks to nothingness, but under protest.

Scalabrini earned plaudits through the Romanza, bringing the shade of Benny Goodman to life at Number 2 with those Gershwin-suggestive rapid scales and the abrupt recovery required from each.   Raineri gave more force than expected at Letter 4 but pulled back his emphasis to suit Scalabrini’s more dispassionate interpolations around the movement’s centre; still, the clarinettist had trouble starting very soft melodic arches. as in the 8th last bar where both executants have a triple piano marking. 

Poulenc’s concluding Allegro con fuoco proved testing for both players, the clarinet missing the odd note, as in the downward runs leading up to Number 6.   But Scalabrini could surprise you with sudden brilliant details of execution, including a facility with Poulenc’s curt pre-melody ornamentation.   The only insecure moment I heard came near Figure 12: a question of a minutely delayed entry.   For the rest, this movement was carried off with ample enthusiasm and a powerful account of the batteringly loud last 7 bars.

Back to Bruch and the odd-numbered pieces.   No. 3 gives the two linear instruments a solo each,  Lawson bringing up memories of Kol Nidre during his firmly delivered account of the first 24 bars.   Where the string solo was a stop-and-start creature, Scalabrini’s clarinet wove a fine, measured lyrical arch.   Some high notes tested Lawson’s pitching during his second solo, but the eventual collaboration succeeded, the string’s abruptness finally yielding to the clarinet’s calm and the piece coming to an impressively sonorous  conclusion that began with a true unison ten bars from the end.   The A minor first piece in the series is the least interesting of them all, here giving no grief to any of the performers.   On the opposite side of the coin, No. 7 has Mendelssohnian rapidity as its premise and the brunt of that work fell to Raineri who found out the pages’ scintillations and gave just enough weight to the piano’s hefty chords that relieve the 6/8 skittering at two focal points.

Last of all, Bruch’s Rumänische Melodie No. 5 gave a platform to Lawson’s talent for full bowing in outlining the initial tune.   Scalabrini’s entry prompted a sort of canonic duet with the cello but the folk colour didn’t carry much weight, belonging more to the school of Liszt in slow rhapsodic mode than to Bartok searching out asperities and irregularities.  Here, Ranieri kept his powder dry, notably in the whirlpool of arpeggios that start at Letter E and gain in flourishes before fading away 26 lush bars later.

At least we can say we heard them, but I’m not sure that these Bruch bagatelles have much to offer these days, except as works for a mutable combination of instruments.   Next time, Raineri might give his two friends something a touch more substantial, less salonesque – Mozart’s Kegelstatt,  Beethoven’s Op. 11, Brahms’ Clarinet Trio, or other works with similar instrumentation by Ireland and d’Indy.    For a nationalistic note, perhaps Alfred Hill’s Miniature Trio might be worth resuscitating.   Nevertheless, this recital served to bring a pair of young talents into the public arena, both estimable contributors to Brisbane’s musical stage.   And it reinforced Raineri’s reputation as an outstandingly sympathetic chamber musician.

 

 

 

Making a fair fist of closed borders

BOHEMIAN SPIRIT

Lachlan Bramble, Ewen Bramble & Anna Goldsworthy

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday August 27

                                                              Lachlan Bramble

You’d have to assume that the third member of the Benaud Trio, Amir Farid, is still locked down in Melbourne along with the rest of the city’s denizens, and that there’s no way legal that he was going to get across to Adelaide to join up with his colleagues, the Bramble brothers, for this Passport Festival recital, one of four mounted by the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall.   A worthy substitution came in Adelaide-born Anna Goldsworthy who, it would appear, is home for the duration, labouring like the rest of her state under the all-protective aegis of Steven Marshall.   Among her many accomplishments, Goldsworthy is pianist for Melbourne’s Seraphim Trio, so she knows her way round the repertoire, in particular the two popular works that made up Thursday night’s program:  Haydn XV/25 in G Major, the Gypsy Rondo gem; and Smetana’s Op. 15 in G minor which stands among the Czech composer’s most self-revelatory creations.

This night marked the first night that any of these musicians had been enlisted into the MDCH ranks.   Violinist Lachlan Bramble I’ve heard pretty much exclusively at Benaud Trio recitals, and there have been quite a lot of them as the ensemble was formed in 2005.   He’s currently Associate Principal 2nd Violin with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.   In similar fashion, I know his brother Ewen’s cello through the same source; he is also an Associate Principal at the ASO.    Goldsworthy has been pretty much exclusively a chamber music personality for me; I’ve been listening to the Seraphims for 20 years.  Sadly,  any further experiences with both groups will probably be reduced to nil; not just because of COVID-19, which might eventually have an ending, but also because I believe that neither ensemble comes to Brisbane as a regular thing.

Anyway, off they went on their Haydn tour with excellent communality of phrasing and a finely-contoured correspondence between piano and violin in the theme statement – a delectable experience with its irregular sentence halves.   You might have expected more reserve from Goldsworthy in the four bars concluding Variation 2, her colleagues overwhelmed at this point.   Apart from a slight piano slip half-way through the piano-dominated final variation, the only question mark came with the slow pace chosen for the movement’s final bar which would have gained more by being kept a tempo.

Lachlan Bramble span a fine solo in bar 17 of the central Poco adagio, placed deftly into position without requiring any self-promotion.   Surprisingly, given their telling collaboration in the opening Andante, Goldsworthy and Lachlan Bramble sounded uneasy in the 8-bar doubling at Letter G on the movement’s last page; still, the piano-to-pianissimo  resolution of absolutely no tension at the close proved more than satisfyingly clean in delivery.    Not much to report about the finale where Goldsworthy mad very few errors in a pell-mell set of pages.  The group took the option of slowing down at minor key intrusions, but showed quite happy to fly past in a persuasive display of enthusiasm for these infectious pages.

Next, a switch to another kind of Bohemia and Lachlan Bramble’s violin led us into the fierce and determined score composed by Smetana on the untimely death of his favourite daughter.   You can hear what you like here, although you’d be working hard to ignore the mourning strophes in both outer movements as well as the strong railing against life’s unfairness during some powerful outbursts in the opening Moderato assai.  Mind you, the delivery of that opening 7-bar solo came across as craggy and expletive-packed; not just a sorrowful narrative, then, but a pugnacious one.   And when the ferment rose, these players gave of their best, notably the Più animato from bar 66 to a climactic point at bar 92, and later a gripping strepitoso passage leading to bar 160.

Another fine, if brief, passage came from Ewen Bramble’s exposure starting at bar 204: a powerful presence in a dark, piano-heavy environment just before another urgent outburst.   Not that you’d belittle the ensemble’s handling of the gentler passages in this movement, but its output made points more tellingly in the pages of maximum excitement and dynamic power.   Lachlan Bramble’s solo between bars 100 and 106 proved unsteady on the top B flats but his octave duet with brother Ewen’s cello between bars 147 and 172 gave an excellent instance of pressure under piano fire.

Another example of straining in the violin line emerged from nowhere in the chameleonic second movement Allegro/Alternativo 1/Allegro/Alternativo 2/Tempo 1; the violin sets the running here, leading to three high Es – nothing sensationally high, but just a tad ‘off’ on this occasion.   Later, at Smetana’s revisiting of his opening material, you could not fault the octave parallel performance between bars 137 and 145, then later between bars 155 and 162.   Even better was to come in the Maestoso pages, where I thought the interpretation was close to ideal for dynamic thrust and a shared awareness of what everybody was doing.   Only an imbalanced pizzicato 5th from the cello in the movement’s penultimate bar marred the surface of a final, subdued recall of the opening page.

Another helter-skelter finale, with an exact rendition from Goldsworthy of the three-against-two rhythmic contest that gives this movement a great deal of its energetic interest.  Both strings followed the pianist’s lead in outlining a dramatic soundscape, distinguished by a reliable precision in melodic delineation and in the many small interjections that emerge from their lines.   Contradicting my observations about the first movement, the group’s account of the first Meno presto interlude worked very well, the highlighting of all players sustained in eloquence and exhibiting three individual voices.

A near thing came at bar 330 where the strings almost missed their first beat reinforcement of Goldsworthy’s upward rush.   But, against a minor flaw like that, you can set a compelling account of the final pages where Smetana fuses his resignation and bleak desolation in a propulsion to one of the least comforting major tonality conclusions in Romantic musical literature,  carried off with a deliberately unpolished panache.  

This combination of exhilaration and despair capped off a night of compromise, in some ways.    The musicians showed no signs of discomfort, but would you seriously expect it?  They’re all solid professionals, well-versed in piano trio practices; each of them would know these two works from many years of program preparation and public performance.  As a minor benefit, the group was operating in optimal  conditions, i. e. without facing a live audience with the concomitant problems of distraction by way of coughing, shuffling, whispering, sleeping, snoring – all those timeless forms of anti-social conduct with which I’ve become too familiar over the years, if never guilty of any.

However, you missed Amir Farid’s Bramble-balancing elegance, just as much as Helen Ayres’ crispness and Timothy Nankervis’ exuberance.   Or perhaps I was mentally wallowing, bringing to mind past experiences of music-making by Thursday evening’s musicians, attempting to slot them into their usual positions and ambiences.   

If we’ve learned anything from the past 6 months, it’s how to be grateful for musical mercies, great and small.   This night was an example of how the MDCH carries out its principal benefaction of bringing us the music we love (much of the time) in performances that may not be ideal but can occasionally verge on excellence.

 

 

 

A blessing, lullabies and a prayer

KARIN SCHAUPP

Musica Viva

Saturday August 22

                                                                 Karin Schaupp

‘Schaupp has been a stalwart of this country’s guitar world for close to 40 years: in her own right as a soloist, as a concerto performer with state orchestras, and as a collaborator with musicians like Umberto Clerici and the Flinders Quartet.   On Saturday evening, she presented this no-frills recital from her home with nobody else but a recording technician in the room with her.   Great to see that Musica Viva has embraced the new model of mounting spartan events: one performer providing her own space and not playing too much in case of mental overload in a time of musical famine.

Schaupp’s choice of diet spanned a wide time range, opening with a brace of Scarlatti sonatas and taking in some modern classics of the guitar repertoire, with a side-step to Australian composer Richard Charlton’s Suspended in a Sunbeam, written for this performer last year.    Of course, some of these pieces have become familiar from the artist’s CDs: Scarlatti’s Keyboard Sonata K. 208 (L. 238), Brahms’ Wiegenlied and Llobet’s El Noy de la Mare (the lullabies), Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios by Barrios, and Leo Brouwer’s Elogio de la Danza.   These date from at least a decade ago in Schaupp’s recording career; apart from the freshly-minted Charlton piece, the program’s other unrecorded works came as no surprise:  the BWV 1000 Fugue in A minor for lute by Bach, and an extra Scarlatti sonata, K 322 (L. 483), which was more successful as a guitar transcription than the other sonata by this composer performed here.

After a Musica Viva-lauding address by a ‘suit’ whom I didn’t recognize, being distracted by negotiating volume and access to scores,  Schaupp began operations with one of those remembrances or salutes to indigenous land rights – a gesture that has quickly become a behavioural cliché which could even be well-intentioned but which never fails to annoy because of its tokenism.   Remember those sad white people in Clifton Hill who put plaques on their houses noting that their lots really belonged to the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung, only to have some Aboriginal people knocking on doors and laying claim to those boastful houses?   They were invited in for cups of tea, which says all you need to know about the depth of such acknowledgements.

Both the Scarlatti works were arranged by Schaupp herself and the ‘Adagio e cantabile‘ K. 208 made for an amiable opening with both repeats observed.   My only quibble was the avoiding of the 5-note chord that ends bar 13; well, not so much an avoiding but an impossibility, given the instrument’s low operating level at that point.  The faster K. 322 is better-known among keyboard players and is gifted with one of those trademark Scarlatti passages of courtly play from bar 36 to the half-way point, and again from bar 73 to the end; the harmonic transparency at these points came over with particularly gratifying clarity in Schaupp’s interpretation

Are you uncertain about the provenance of Bach’s works for lute?  Join the club.  Before the Early Music Brigade got under way, Segovia cruelled the authenticists’ pitch by transposing, transcribing and transliterating a good deal of Bach’s music.   He didn’t leave Scarlatti untouched either, making a popularly-used guitar version of the L. 483, the second of Schaupp’s offerings.

The G minor Fugue, well-known in a violin version, is taken up a tone by most guitarists, I believe; Bach might have moved it himself, for all I know.   Schaupp played a pretty clean reading with some passing glitches in bars 44 and 47 but with an otherwise sustained accuracy, reaching a well-prepared climactic point at bar 59 and onward, then realising the smothered tension of the suspensions in bars 93 and 94 before the sudden near-cadenza in the penultimate measure.   Here was a measured interpretation without imposed theatrics or a resonance-besotted bass line; rather, the lines were delivered with balance and dynamic control.

Schaupp’s husband, Giac Giacomantonio, arranged the Brahms piece for her and expanded the song to three verses.   No surprises here, even if the piano accompaniment’s slight syncopations  did not appear to survive the move.   With the arrival of its companion piece by Llobet, we entered the realm of straight guitar music, this work and what followed all original compositions.   Not that there is much more to the Spanish composer’s Catalan folk-song arrangement than there is to the Brahms lied: one page divided into two halves, one work in 6/8 and the other in 3/4, both placid in emotion (as you’d expect).    It was hard to determine why Schaupp seemed so anxious to get off the final D of bar 6, or why the lower notes of the thirds that end bar 5 didn’t resonate.   But then, I didn’t register whether or not they appeared at the bar 7 repetition.   A simple piece, but a pleasure to come across something which takes into account the instrument’s potential for colour and chord spacing.

With Brouwer’s two-movement Elogio, Schaupp jumped into a contemporary stream; even though the work dates from 1964, the Cuban composer speaks an adventurous language which takes dissonances in its stride. at odd points verging on twelve-tone writing although pedal points and the first movement’s Major 7th characteristic argues for a tendency towards a tonal centre.   The executant employed plenty of rubato in the opening Lento, which is a kind of tribute to dance in its juxtaposed flashes of motion and near-stasis, the whole comprising a mobile core surrounded by pairs of ten bars showing relative quiescence. 

Brouwer’s second movement obstinato deals, like the first, in gruppetti, but here much more aggressively.   The entire movement hurtles forward, notably in the central Vivace in 2/4 which reaches a climax in a vehement repeated rasgueado chord before returning to the rapid, metre-changing material that began the movement, followed by a vivace coda. Schaupp displayed an excellent command of this demanding work, at ease with its many  jumps in emotional and technical content, building an impressive structure in each movement while showing no hesitation in vaulting between Brouwer’s juxtapositions of the frenetic with one-line meditation.

Charlton’s work takes its inspiration from a 1994 Carl Sagan speech about the Earth and its position in the cosmos.   The Australian composer subtitles his piece Thoughts on the ‘Pale Blue Dot, as photographed by Voyager 1, and he interpolates in the music a text of his own composition with two brief Sagan excerpts.   Charlton gives his performer (guitarist and speaker in one, preferably, as here) leeway to pronounce the words over pauses or repeated patterns; Schaupp, the work’s dedicatee and commissioner, showed a reassuring ease with the score.   A good deal of its progress is spasmodic, the accompaniment to the text tersely episodic but hard to take in because the words get in the way.  Charlton inserts two passages where the speaking stops and the musical content presents as more sequential and lyrical.    You come across some moving passages, as when the composer returns to lyricism after the speaker comments on the ‘cosmic dark’ of our universe, and at the work’s end where the last chords present an affirmation of our small-scale existence on the rim of infinity.

Barrios’ tremolo study seems to be a rite of passage for every aspiring guitarist but it has an underlying sweetness of melody that complements the middle fingers’ exercise work.  I liked Schaupp’s interpretation which gave a necessary stress to the middle-range arpeggios – the tune, if you like – rather than belting out the bass dotted minims that open nearly every bar, or over-emphasizing the efficiency of her top tremolo.   Mind you, she had given us her view of the work in a prefatory talk, finding a ‘prayer’ in this music.  Which may well be the case, if only for the consolatory turn to E Major at bar 56 and he ‘Amen’ coda at bar 72.   Certainly, it brought this brief recital to a satisfying conclusion: rounding out a trip from the firm benediction of a brilliantly constructed fugue to the touching vision of an old woman asking for alms  –  all too relevant a backdrop to this year of disasters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opera writ small

EVA

Eva Kong and Alex Raineri

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday August 15     

                                                                       Eva Kong

This was the second of two recitals I intended to review over last weekend.   The first, a Friday night exercise from Sydney with flautist Sally Walker and pianist Simon Tedeschi, comprised a bevy of (mainly) French pieces.   But my account with the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall asked for a new password, then refused to accept anything I proposed and, by the time an MDCH technician got back to me (after an assuring message that the company was ‘on the case’), the recital had already started.   No recommendations, then, for Cloudmix who somehow stuffed up a connection that has lasted since the beginning of the Melbourne series; so much for trying to help Australian musicians through this organization.

No such difficulty with the Brisbane Festival; just a pity that this body can only offer one recital a fortnight.  The latest featured Korean-born soprano Kong who is better known for her opera appearances, particularly as Chiang Ch’ing in John Adams’ first opera, Nixon in China, which a large number of US critics have been trying to place in the realm of masterpieces since its premiere.   Raineri provided the piano accompaniments – as usual, with splendid command over, and sympathy with, a wide-ranging program.   Further, for one particular piece the soprano/piano ensemble was joined by two cellists: Oliver Scott and Shuhei Lawson.

Wong and Raineri opted to start with the first of Poulenc’s Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon, the elliptically-titled C.   It made for a sombre opening gambit; despite its several shafts of illuminating imagery, the song indulges in no fanciful word-painting   Its vocal line moves simply with an early high note but the main impression is of grief at the loss of France to the German invader – yet again.   Kong’s treatment proved more confrontational than usual; maybe this was because of cramped studio conditions in which her dynamic sounded aggressive, or perhaps her view of the work has uncovered a vein of defiance, a sort of determined regret.   Whatever the case, C made a no-nonsense start for the soprano.

Another chanson followed with Debussy’s early Mallarmé setting, Apparition.   Here, Kong found a better place to exercise her talent for dramatic declamation, notably at the outbursts for a key signature change to G flat at C’était le jour béni and at the work’s climax on the repeat of apparue at bar 38.   Both performers interpolated a ritardando at the end of bar 8, possibly to celebrate the end of Debussy’s flirtation with B flat and A flat; Kong inserted a phrase-breaking breath or two – one I seem to recall breaking up ton premier baiser.   But the soprano’s accuracy in this work’s chromatic slips could not be faulted and the collaboration across the final page’s snow imagery was exceptionally restrained in its eloquence.

Kong then gave us the first of her three operatic arias with Obéissons quand leur voix appelle from Act 3 of Massenet’s Manon, although I believe she started well back with Est-ce vrai?, followed by Je marche sur tous les chemins.    All of this was possibly included to give us a slab of solo work before the main aria, which actually involves the chorus; Raineri’s piano substituted for the opera’s jeunes gens who comment so supportively on the heroine’s call to hedonistic arms.   Here was a more comfortable piece for Kong who infused its pages with plenty of twinkling personality for a scene fragment that ideally depicts Manon at this stage of her career.    And, when the gavotte proper began, the soprano showed herself very convincing in dealing with the direct nature of her line, even if things didn’t seem to gel in the last two bars; hard to tell what went amiss, but the effect was of uncertainty.

Kong then introduced us to some Korean songs: Youngsub Choi’s Memory and a setting of Psalm 23 by Woon Young Na.  In the first of these, the compositional language was Romantic with a Rachmaninovian turn, notable only for a repeated piano figure.  Was this originally a folk-song?    The text is by an unknown author but reads like an extended haiku.   Whatever the case, Choi’s required vocal range is demanding, as are some interpolated ornamental notes.    The prevailing mood was melancholy, mainly because the pace was slow and the minor scale/mode dominated. 

Kong told us in a prefatory address that the Church had affected Korean music, an observation well borne out by the psalm setting which proved to be slightly less lush than the previous song and more suggestive of Celtic tunes; in fact, it could have been one of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser’s Hebridean settings.  This piece was delivered with great zeal and determination, rising to a powerful high point (‘the valley of the shadow of death’ or ‘cup is overflowing’ ?); by contrast, the piano accompaniment was notable for a harmonically static bass across much of the work’s progress.

In came the two cellos to help with the aria from the Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5 in a Raineri arrangement which at the start had the two strings playing lines 3 and 4 of the original 8-part instrumentation.   In these operating conditions, Kong took the dominant role and never let go.    During Ruth V Corrêa’s poem in the middle of the vocalises, the cellos switched to the original’s top lines while the soprano gave an ardent account of the text, taking her time at each of the pause markings.   Raineri assumed the cello lines 5 and 6 from bar 51, as well as sustaining the piece’s two bass lines, as he had throughout.  It all made sense, even if you missed the mild texture of the original scoring in the central pages and the onward-pushing pizzicati of the outer segments.  The piece could also have gained from longer sustained A and C minims at the last chord.

Well-positioned after the Villa-Lobos, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise brought the night back to an even keel.   Kong seemed unable to operate at a soft level in this work, something that is pretty vital for the first seven bars as well as the final eight.   But she found the appropriate taut plangency for the piece’s central pages from bars 18 to 30 where the emotional; level is heightened.   

Opera extract No. 3 turned out to be Roxane’s lullaby, Usnijcie krwawe, from Act 2 of Szymanowski’s King Roger, the only real chance in the opera where the king’s wife gets to say something at length; even then, she’s interrupted by Roger, Edrisi and the chorus.  Kong made an excellent display of control in the long melismatic vocalising at the aria’s start; once into the text, she produced a dramatically heightened reading of this extract, quite right when you consider the theatrical circumstances of its delivery.  Still, the output tended to the monochrome in expressiveness despite the emotional shift when the composer’s tonality definitely shifts from its modal minor to the major. 

Speaking of modes, Raineri took the opportunity for a solo before Kong’s big finale which had relevance to what came before it and what came after.    John Adams’ short China Gates uses modes as its fundamental material and is a fairly fluid sample of what used to be called minimalism before concerned composers got distressed by such a dismissive catch-all descriptor.   The pianist demonstrated a persuasive fluency in his outlining, although the changes between sections sounded more overt than usual.   Does this music still test the patience?   Probably not when it’s small-scale like China Gates.   Yet it reminded me of witnessing Philip Glass play his own piano music at some past Melbourne International Arts Festival where the American composer was feted – lots of sustaining pedal swathes across a lyrical motif or six that intertwined to produce a lyrical cloud, with the invitation to luxuriate in the textures and let your faculties drowse.

To end, Kong sang the coloratura aria from the end to Act Two of Adams’ opera  –  I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung  –  thereby ending on a powerful note and giving us a small sample of her mastery of this role which she sang for Victorian Opera six years ago (I didn’t see it) and also gave Sydney this aria in 2017 for Opera Australia’s The Nixon Tapes concert of excerpts.   It’s a belt from start to finish, one-dimensional in character if probably making sense in context.   You had to be impressed by Kong’s emphatic delivery that sizzled with vocal power and enough spite to bring to mind the reported ferocity of the Dowager Empress Cixi as well as the raging contempt for anything outside herself that Mao’s wife showed during the Gang of Four trial in 1980. 

Raineri gave Kong all the repetitive major key support she needed and handled the long postlude with unfaltering energy. 

This aria is a highlight in Adams’ opera which has enjoyed several performances world-wide since its 1987 premiere.   But it’s a superficial product; in my mind, little more than a blip in operatic history and inferior in most ways to King Roger.   You’d have to be a determined patriot to class the work among the great operas.   But then, as someone who lived through the period, it’s outside the bounds of my understanding to find sympathy with a work that attempts to gain sympathy for Mao and Nixon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The night of the arranger

LA VIE EN ROSE

Tania Frazer, Jonathan Henderson, Alan Smith, Alex Raineri,

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday August 1

                                                                      Tania Frazer

Alan Smith

                                                                         Alan Smith

Latest in this online series that is lighting up the synapses of music-loving Brisbane, Saturday’s all-French concert employed the services of the city’s Southern Cross Soloists; well, four of them.   While you might have expected from the title an hour-long reminiscence of Trenet, Aznavour and Piaf, what came out was both enriching and puzzling but, in synchronicity with what I have learned about the Soloists, the program was packed with arrangements – some of them comfortable for all concerned, others not so happy.    At the heart of it all sat Alex Raineri’s piano accompaniment; in an act of self-abnegation, the Festival’s artistic director performed only one sols, which is extraordinary when you consider that the offerings included works by Satie, Ravel and Debussy.

In fact, the most orthodox, ‘straight’ work kicked off the evening.   Henderson and Raineri worked through Francaix’s Divertimento of 1953; not a piece to keep you engrossed but an alternately tuneful and busy compendium.   Its initial Toccatina, a non-stop barrage of notes for both players, proved as full of surface excitement as many another showcase written especially for Rampal; a frippery, but soon over.   The following Notturno proved attractively mobile; no longueurs here.   Another vital effusion in the Perpetuum mobile which lived up to its title but annoyed at the opening because you could not tell whether the rhythm was intentionally irregular or whether the players were uneasy with its metrical lay-out.   Fitted with a galaxy of chromatic runs, these pages gave Richardson a real workout in terms of breathing.

I found Francaix’s Romanza the most attractive of the suite’s five movements with its deft combination of sentimentality and spice.   You couldn’t call the latter aggressively dissonant but the composer beguiled you with several unexpected turns of line and harmonic structure.   These pages showed Francaix at his best in a lyric of no little charm, executed without excess in any department; the unfeeling could dismiss it as film music but the final bars showed how Francaix could transcend the trite.   As for the Finale, it impressed for a dash of piquancy but sounded like a trial for the performers who fortunately found a less dogged approach as the piece neared its end – or perhaps the work gained in inspiration.   Whatever the case, you were more aware in the later pages of a sense of humour in the stop/start alternations and a slick final bar.

For a lot of us, there was a time when we found Satie to be as he presented – droll, eccentric, heart-of-gold.   But the charm wore off somewhere in the 1980s for me; now the performance directions along the lines of ‘ Take a nap, then construct a lovers’ nest from papier-mâché and osprey dung’ seem aimless, although such high-jinks gave rise (eventually) to a school of composition where the score was all prose; and who was that Frenchman discovered for us by Keith Humble and Jean-Charles François who wrote  pithy enigmatic texts as his scores?   Not to mention Stockhausen in the later Messianic years.   Even so, we are still brought up short by the pared-back calm of creations like the Gymnopédies in both piano and Debussy-scored (1 and 3 only) formats.

No less so by Satie’s Gnossiennes, which may have something to do with gnosticism or, more materially, with Knossos; I’ve had nothing to do with the creed but have wandered around the Cretan ruins and Satie’s miniatures could possibly have some connecrtion with Sir Arthur Evans’ excavated site – exactly what, I don’t know except for a shared angularity.   Whatever the background, this performance of Gnossiennes 1, 4 and 3 saw Frazer offer her own transcriptions for oboe and piano, the outer ones of this trio very well known.   Frazer took the right-hand melody line and left to Raineri the chordal background.

It took a while to get used to the penetrating double-reed timbre but Frazer generated an expressive line in No. 1, although I wondered about some of the too-simple dynamic shifts during repeats, like the move to piano in the second half of the Très luisant segment; and the upward octave shift on the final F sounded unnecessary.   The encounter with No. 4 impressed in its middle strophes, after the semiquaver quibbling.   And I couldn’t understand the acceleration during No. 3 unless Frazer and Raineri were putting an individual slant on the composer’s direction to play De manière à obtenir un creux.   If anything, the reading of this Gnossienne seemed to me rather over-played, imposing a personality where the original intention was to remove it.

Smith gave a sensible reading of Ravel’s Tzigane with fine Raineri accompaniment across the whole tension-packed canvas.   The violinist would probably not have been too happy with his A dotted crotchets in bars 9 and 10 but this whole opening section on the G string only is a taxing passage, especially as it sets a high intonational standard right from the first notes.   Smith’s rendering proved powerful enough, although the double-stops at Rehearsal Number 3 emphasized the lower line.   Coming up all too soon, a diabolical alternation of harmonics and left-hand pizzicato follows before the exposed violin gets some relief (not that it ever gets much of a pause).

The violinist powered through the testing pages with admirable zest, winding up with an excellent grounding deliberation at Number 17, building to a fine clamour at Number 32 with the concluding rush from accelerando to presto impressing for its accuracy under high pressure as the piece smashes into a compelling quadruple-stopped last two bars. Tzigane is one of music literature’s great exercises in deconstruction, Ravel taking all-too-familiar Ziegeuner tropes and pushing the trite into virtuosic exercises with no concern for soppy sentimentality or faux-masculine flashiness.   It’s a delight to hear when the violinist is able to handle its trials and Smith did Ravel – and himself – proud.

From here on, the program moved into Beecham-lollipop mode with a bracket of three songs and a one-time compulsory encore for violinists.   Raineri began this group with his own solo piano arrangement of Louiguy’s La vie en rose.   It followed the song’s chorus faithfully enough, the whole piece containing only a few harmonic solecisms and, for most of its length, having a concentration on the lower half of the piano’s compass.  Taking the familiar tune up an octave was effective, not least because it made for a relief from the low-pitched preceding pages.   I’m not a fan of the ripple/arpeggio ending but at least it wasn’t overdone here.   No, it wasn’t as ambitious an undertaking as Grainger’s reshaping of The Man I Love but it did little harm to this era-representing evergreen.

Henderson partnered Raineri in a no-surprises version of Debussy’s pre-1891 Beau soir chanson.   The flautist took on the vocal part with a generously phrased volubility and giving us a well-prepared climax across bars 25 and 26.    The same composer’s 1880 Nuit d’étoiles brought Frazer to the melody line.   Here also, the lyric came across with ease and restraint.   I think that the piano part diverged from the original in the last refrain, making the octavo jump eight bars early – or perhaps I was happy to get the main theme back pianissimo.   Last in this group was the Méditation from Act Two of Massenet’s opera Thaïs, with which neglected work Sir Andrew Davis made Melbourne music-lovers familiar three years ago.    Smith had no trouble dispatching this sweetest of intermezzi with a fine deftness in handling the gruppetti of five and four semiquavers that punctuate the smooth violin line’s progress in the piece’s outer sections.   Possibly the sforzandi at the più mosso agitato direction from bar 34 on could have been pulled back to a less full-on dynamic level but it was difficult to find fault with the rest of the score, Raineri having little to do beyond outlining the harp’s almost non-stop accompanying role.

To finish off the night with some fireworks, Raineri and Co. put on a more taxing encore piece, a work that occupies a dodgy zone between definite program material and something frivolous with which to delight any audience: Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.   But, rather than employing Smith’s expertise, the work was given in an arrangement by Frazer where flute and oboe share the solo violin line between them. Frazer took the opening solo up to bar 6; Henderson took over from bar 7 to bar 10; and on it went in a heart-warming demonstration of how to play musical fair-shares.   A little bit of transposition was needed to cope with the fioriture nine bars before the rondo’s start.  Nevertheless, once the main constituent of this work was in progress, Frazer maintained her even distribution of the work-load with some clever interweaving and a subtle preparation for the trill hiatus just before Letter B.

Notably appealing was the attack by both woodwind artists on the double-stops during the con morbidezza interlude.   A crunch-of-sorts came with the triple-stop cadenza five bars before Letter G which turned somehow into spaced-out arpeggios; but that’s pretty much what the original is.   Then on to a hurtling coda and home.  You’d have to call it an interesting exercise but I have to confess to a longing for the original where you get to enjoy a violinist’s handling of the composer’s hurdles, contrived especially to test that instrumentalist’s virtuosity and self-control.

Not a night for the purist, then.   Still,  Raineri had organised a well-assorted program, contrasting the tried-and-true with some arcana, peppered with three very popular works.   All of it gave a platform for four sadly under-used musicians.   But we live in hope that Aunt Annastacia will keep us free from extra-state contamination and that these artists will soon get back to playing for live audiences who are actually in the room with them.   Until then, we will have to put up manfully and womanfully   –  and appreciatively  –  with the inbuilt fluctuations in content of entertainments like La vie en rose.