Heavenly length? Maybe

SCHUBERT OCTET

Australian Octet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday April 22

                                                                    William Hennessy

In one of its more lopsided efforts, the MCO performed three works on Sunday: a short new work by Benjamin Martin and Beethoven’s Serioso F minor String Quartet took a little over half an hour, to be followed by a solid reading of the Schubert Octet where I think every repeat was observed so that we got the work’s full effect – all quite in order, since that’s the way the composer wanted it, even if attention flags somewhat in the Andante with variations.

Martin’s Passepied was composed to capitalise on the musicians available for the octet: string quartet with double bass, and three wind – clarinet, bassoon and horn.  It needed to be played twice, in the best Society for Private Musical Performances mode.  Although lasting only a few minutes, it showed an intricacy of statement and development that could have been made more apprehensible after a second hearing.

Naturally, the work raised a simple question: exactly what is a passepied? Most of us know it’s a dance form, found in suites along with the usual courantes, allemandes, sarabandes and gigues.  Unlike these staples, it usually features as an alternative , like a musette or a gavotte.  Even though I know they are familiar to Baroque experts, I’ve only come across one from that era: the first of two in Bach’s English Suite No. 5, once part of the AMEB piano syllabus.  The form strikes me still as an active minuet.  But then, you have to consider Debussy’s one that concludes his Suite bergamasque which is fast-moving enough but eschews the traditional triple metre.  Some commentators find a passepied in Stravinsky’s Symphony in C and the change in time signature (a third of the way through the third movement) to 3/16 could denote such an interpolation.

For his part, Martin makes things more complicated by layering his 6/4 metre with a hemiola, so that you’re never quite sure where you are or where the accents are meant to fall.  The theme he uses is amiable and soulful, subjected to gentle treatment including a bit of inversion.  But this music’s real interest lies in its inter-meshing levels which avoid soupiness but impress as packed with ambiguities as when a simple quaver-plus-two-semiquavers pattern shifts into a quaver triplet; at least, that’s what I think was going on.  An aggressive climactic point provides the necessary tension and sense of narrative before the piece finishes both ambiguously and quietly.  A lot happens in a little space.

William Hennessy, the MRC artistic director, took first chair throughout the afternoon, with Markiyan Melnychenko his second, Merewyn Bramble on viola and Michael Dahlenburg the ensemble’s cellist.  These four were a common factor in all three works and were heard en clair in the Beethoven quartet.  This opened with fine melding from all involved, in particular when the two violins operated at the octave in those melting moments at bars 40 to 42, bars 51 to 53, and later in equivalent positions during this initial Allegro‘s recapitulation.  Still, these are passages of emotional rest and the main thrust of the work is both vital and confrontational, descriptors fully realised by all players.

In the Allegretto, Dahlenburg’s initial cello pizzicati set up a sombre ambience for a reading of barely subdued passion, distinguished by a soulful solo from Bramble at the start of the fugal entries in bar 35, and the haunting reminiscence of his opening gesture from the cellist at bar 112.   While the scherzo impressed for its vehemence, the standout moment came in the D Major Trio with Melnychenko’s unforced solo line at the start an unexpected if brief delight.  Uniformity of attack was the distinctive feature of the finale but this is the weakest movement of the four, disappointing in its Mendelssohnian opting for the light side in its coda, complete with insistent unisons.

Sometimes dominating the Schubert’s communal timbre but not self-promoting was Lloyd van’t Hoff’s clarinet, a creamy presence in the opening Adagio/Allegro. That was, in some ways, expected: Schubert treats this voice with a sort of demanding benevolence – which cannot be said of the horn part which enjoyed the attentions of Anton Schroeder who seemed to make remarkably few slips throughout the work’s duration and gave us some memorably clear-speaking moments like the solo at the end of this first movement.  which galloped past with few causes for concern. Hennessy was under stress at bar 130 just before the exposition ends, then waltzed through the same passage at the repeat.

Van’t Hoff p[roved to be the hero for Schubert’s Adagio, but then he had the glorious opening melody all to himself.  Still, the honours were sometimes shared fairly among the wind and upper strings, Dahlenburg and Emma Sullivan on double bass not getting much of the composer’s attention.  As in the Beethoven, the Scherzo‘s best impression was made in the trio, here treated by the string quartet with high courtesy informed by an underlying buoyancy.

The Andante‘s tune is cute, almost affectedly sweet but eminently suited to variations, even if some of the composer’s exertions follow familiar tracks in patterns given to both violins and in the allocation of primacy.  Hennessy sounded flustered in the second half of Variation 1 where the lower winds comment before the clarinet arrives for a revealing doubling of the upper string line.  Dahlenburg made the most of Variation 4, surging through his arpeggio-rich solo with commendable authority and expressive address.  But this entire movement strikes me as a drop in standard compared to what surrounds it; not enough invention or shifts from the predictable.

In the Menuetto, the material might be simple but its shaping is remarkable, well instanced by the first violin’s soft soaring at bars 30 to 33, Hennessy giving us all a lesson in expert enunciation.  The whole movement, including the Trio, prefigures the Brahms Serenades in its suggestions of bucolic opulence, notably the octave duet for Matthew Kneale’s bassoon and Hennessy at the trio’s midway point.

As it should, the reading ended with a high-spirited Allegro but, oh God, it’s long.  A nice touch came through the communal hesitations in outlining the movement’s four-square main theme but, by this stage, you could hear slight imperfections in the fast triplet passages from the treble instruments.  Not that you can blame the players: Schubert is dogged in his insistence on giving out his thematic material in various combinations; it’s reminiscent of those myriad bars of whirling action to be found in the finale of the C Major Symphony No. 9 but with less opportunity for dynamic brilliance.

The MCO patrons were warmly responsive at the Octet’s conclusion, and rightly so since the rendition they had experienced captured the core of this long-winded work.  It makes no great claims to profound statements but stands foursquare as a mighty cassation: a set of disparate movements, the best of them as appealing as anything in Schubert’s improbably large output.  The fact that these performers had given the program on the previous night in Daylesford might go some way to explaining several unaccountable if slight intonation lapses in the Octet’s later pages.  At least they’ll have had a day’s grace before giving the Octet again to a select group of affluent patrons in the Recital Centre’s Salon tonight at 6 pm.

Et in Arcadia ego

LET ME DIE BEFORE I WAKE

Arcadia Winds

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday April 16

     (L to R) David Reichelt, Rachel Shaw, Lloyd Van’t Hoff, Matthew Kneale, Kiran Phatak

‘And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.’  It’s an old verse but a welcome one because it sets up the possibility of a perfect death – a matter of increasing concern to those of us in what we laughingly call the twilight phase of our struggle with mortality.  In fact, this recital took its title from a solo clarinet work by Salvatore Sciarrino, a solid challenge in sound manufacture for the Arcadia’s Lloyd Van’t Hoff and rendered all the more atmospherically grim by being presented in near-darkness.

Death  stood at the heart of this event, the very able quintet beginning with Music for a Deceased Friend by Peteris Vasks, a 1981 work written to mourn the early death of bassoonist Jana Barinska.  With an intentionally limited quantity of material, the score still holds great interest for its elegant placement of timbres, even if the Vasks habit of having the players also vocalise brings an unreliable layer to the texture, one entry in particular more than a bit wobbly.   As for the emotional effect, it was not content to stay on one grieving level: Vasks gave us several instances of rage against the dying of this young light, although the employment of a Latvian melody brought a final symbolic acceptance to the piece.

As an opener, this Music brought us into the players’ professional orbit, a place where the functioning of each instrument proved striking.  In the Salon, as everyone knows, there is no room to hide, the acoustic being immediate and dry and every note significant.  Fortunately, these young musicians are highly competent, well-prepared and unafraid to make their statements boldly; yes, you could hear the (very) occasional questionable note, but not two together, and the sense of collegiality – everyone aware of each other’s work – proved to be one of the evening’s major accomplishments, especially in this work where a good deal of the action isn’t circumscribed by time-signatures and/or bar-lines.

As a pacifier of sorts, the Arcadians launched into an arrangement of Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin.  I can’t pinpoint who did the arranging, although you’d have to suspect Mason Jones, because he worked over the specific movements we heard yesterday: Prelude, Fugue (replacing the expected Forlane from Ravel’s own orchestration), Menuet and Rigaudon,  Hans Abrahamsen’s version follows Ravel’s orchestration while the Gunther Schuller scoring for this quintet format comprises all six original piano pieces, including the Toccata finale.

David Reichelt’s oboe enjoyed much of the limelight, particularly in the hectic (for him) Prelude, where he took the lead in generating a suitably burbling melodic stream.  Probably the only fault you could pick with this movement was the overshadowing of Kiran Phatak’s flute which every so often got lost in the briskly mobile texture.  With Ravel’s E minor Fugue, the group ventured into territory that most of us don’t know, unless we’re familiar with the piano original.  Because it has only three lines, the texture remains lucid; added to this, the subject is short and simple, its inversion about a third of the way through given more attention than it merits.  But the players handled it soberly, not trying to dress it up with tricks of over-emphasis or self-effacement for the greater good; only the final open 5th sounded a tad uncertain in its pitching.

In the centre of the Menuet, the tenor-to-bass group of Van’t Hoff, Matthew Kneale’s bassoon and Rachel Shaw’s horn gave a near-menacing gravity to the Musette with its essentially D minor but tonally ambiguous underpinning.  These are pages that suffer from plenty of sloppy treatment when the strings get involved 4 bars after Number 6 in the orchestral setting; no matter how considerate the conductor, the passage’s dynamic jugular suffers an assault.  What a pleasure, then, to hear the dance given with piercing clarity, particularly Shaw’s compelling contribution.  And the Rigaudon came off well enough with a deftness of delivery that complemented its innate optimism.

You could admire Sciarrino and Van’t Hoff in equal measure for the evening’s title piece.  Multiphonics and the tricks of over-blowing have been part of the contemporary composer’s stock-in-trade for decades, although the Italian composer brought a new facet to them with his use of low trills below a top note; well, two notes alternating in the clarinet’s lower reaches is probably a better description.  The piece sets up a sound palette and doesn’t move far from the material of its first page but the sensory and intellectual underload make you concentrate on exactly what you are hearing – which includes the player’s breathing under and between phrases.  It’s a work that combines outward placidity with the obvious strain put on its interpreter to get the notes out.  It would be well worth hearing again but in an environment where the instrument enjoys richer resonance.

Moving away from the death-motif that obtained even in Ravel’s memorials to his World War I companions, the quintet was amplified by the arrival of Luke Carbon and his bass clarinet for a reading of Janacek’s celebration of his own youth, Mladi: for me, the program’s highpoint for the players’ open response  to the composer’s vim-filled essays in reminiscence.  This version might not have had the surging confidence that more experienced ensembles bring to it, but certain moments showed both intelligence and personality, like the self-possessed horn solo at bar 55 in the opening Allegro.

Later, the sextet worked to fine effect to meet the composer’s expressive demands in the Andante which suggests a slow march, only to break out into whirlwind bursts of ferment, the ambience oscillating as recklessly as it does in the middle movement of Janacek’s Sinfonietta or in the final movement of the Kreutzer Sonata String Quartet.  If anything, the group took their time throughout these pages, making sure the contrasts in emotional content enjoyed room to breathe.

The following Vivace gained from Phatak’s bright, staccato piccolo in its rapid-fire outer pages and also from Reichelt’s controlled and unexpectedly warm solos from bar 58 to bar 78, and again at another Meno mosso spot, bars 103 to 116, this latter well-mimicked by Shaw, her horn jumping through a couple of awkward demi-semiquaver hoops at bar 121 without too much fuss.  I would have welcomed more rapidity in the concluding Allegro animato movement, even across the slower-moving interludes; I think the upper three voices could have handled a more brisk assault although getting rapidly repeated pedal notes articulated clearly by the horn, bassoon and bass clarinet would have been a big ask, particularly for Kneale and Carbon in passages like the rapid-tongued muttering between bars 54 and 66.

The Arcadians make a welcome presence on our chamber music scene for several reasons, not the least of which is a concern with promoting the contemporary, an intention clearly illustrated in this hour-and-a-quarter offering.  What is also appealing is a willingness to take on music that requires sheer hard work, like the Janacek sextet which is marvellously rhapsodic and energising to hear but entails massive dedication to gets its components fused and individual timbres balanced.   If you needed it, here was a splendid sample of this gifted ensemble’s talent and potential.

 

 

 

Contemporary gestures but not much there

Avi Avital & Giocoso String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday April 14

            (L to R) Teofil Todica, Martha Windhagauer, Sebastian Casleanu, Bas Jongen

Just as we prepare for the next Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition which is coming up in the first week of July at the Australian National Academy of Music and the Melbourne Recital Centre, here comes a sort of success story from three years ago.  At the 2015 MICMC, the Giocoso String Quartet won Second Prize, the Audience Award and the Musica Viva Prize.  Part of this last involved an MV-sponsored tour, so here are the players, although are they in the original format?

Somewhere over the past few years, violist Adrian Stanciu has been replaced by Martha Windhagauer.   But the original Giocoso personnel remain a mystery, despite my best attempts at research.   In the publicity and program for this tour, the claim is made that this current format dates from 2014, although Stanciu seems to have been around for recording/taping sessions beyond then.

Complicating matters even further is the existence of another Giocoso quartet, made up of British musicians.

At any rate, in this collaboration with mandolinist Avi Avital, the Giocosos were heard in one work by themselves: Schumann in A minor.  What struck me straight away was the dynamic dominance of Windhagauer and cellist Bas Jongen; their entries into the first pages of the Introduzione were robust enough but, when the group swept into the pendant Allegro, the imbalance became quite pronounced.  First violin Sebastian Casleanu impressed for his fine and usually accurate line but neither he nor his partner-at-the-top, Teofil Todica, put up much challenge to their tenor/bass companions when the action quickened.

At times, the players made some odd decisions in their treatment of Schumann’s score; a pause at bar 29 lasted inordinately long and the 6/8 time signature of the Allegro proved hard to determine until an exposed violin made the pulse clear.  Even in the first movement repeat, Jongen’s cello carried more than its fair share of the group’s output.  If you thought this was an aberration, the first sentences of the Intermezzo made a similar impression as Casleanu’s melody line was overshadowed by the parallel motion parts of Todica and Windhagauer; but this movement was treated as a close cousin to the work of its dedicatee, Mendelssohn, even though its content is less redolent of the Athenian forest and more suggestive of a wilder reiter.

In the Adagio, where the first violin took hold of a theme, the viola’s punctuating semiquaver figure that stretches across 12 bars distracted from the upper lyric.  Still, the monothematic Presto-finale saw a more aggressive showing from the ensemble’s upper levels and gave some compensation for a reading that raised serious questions about the Giocosos’ weight distribution.

Avital – last heard here with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra some 17 months ago – joined the quartet for two contemporary works: Elena Kats-Chernin’s take on Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo, enjoying its premiere on this tour, and US-born British writer David Bruce’s Cymbeline.  I don’t know this opera anywhere near as well as L’incoronazione di Poppea but the Australian composer has chosen scraps from Monteverdi’s score on which to elaborate her five movements.  After a quotation from near the opera’s opening, Kats-Chernin sets her usual battery into action with an attention-grabbing motoric drive , employing a modulatory chain worthy of Piazzolla, whose flamboyance somehow comes to mind through all the alarums and excursions.  For a good deal of the time, Avital’s sound came across here as a balalaika substitute with plenty of rapid tremolo.

Not much of moment was accomplished in either of the slower sections – Sea of Weeping and In the Sun and in the Stars – although the duelling in thirds for violins during the latter while Avital dealt with what sounded like a Monteverdi melody was refreshing and non-gimmicky.   For the final Don’t Look Back, Kats-Chernin indulged in a rapid folk dance with Zigeuner flavourings, the whole full of flourishes and a reliance on forward impetus to suggest the fury of the Maenads.  Throughout the work, commissioned for this tour, it seemed to me that nobody was being tested too much, except to maintain the pace; not one of the composer’s most challenging constructs for her musicians or her audience.

Avital chose to play the Bach D minor Violin Chaconne as a solo to show his instrument’s potential.  This might have been spurred by his publicity which was headed by a quote from the Haaretz Daily – ‘Everything you never dreamt a mandolin could do.’  Don’t know about that; everything he did on this night was pretty much what you’d expect this instrument to achieve.   Still, it was a pity he took on this particular work as he was competing with James Ehnes’ splendid account of the whole Partita from five days before.  And, pace the inbuilt limitations of the mandolin, he was also sitting squarely in the shadow cast by Segovia and that phenomenal guitarist’s seminal treatment of the original from more years ago than I’d care to recall  –  a transcription of high distinction that has nevertheless been pooh-poohed by more pretentious guitarists than you could shake a stick at.

Avital gave a brisk interpretation, less inclined to linger than most violinists.  That’s only natural as his mandolin and the actual mode of sound production associated with it don’t allow for sustaining sound or reverberation.  Also, a significant amount of the score’s bravado is dissipated when the violin’s slashing chords are not arpeggiated.  Better news on the emotional landscape where the interpreter gave us three well-defined variation slabs and made each of them a satisfying entity.

The only problems that came across were the occasional buzz when one of the left-hand fingers landed on a fret; which defect, with a ‘live’ instrument like this one, is hard to disguise.

Bruce’s work has nothing to do with Shakespeare and everything to do with the Celtic interpretation of the name: Lord of the Sun.  The piece gives us three scenes, along the lines of Debussy’s La mer: Sunrise, Noon, Sunset.   Like Kats-Chernin’s, this piece is couched in a conservative harmonic vocabulary, setting the scene with plenty of open 5ths and 3rds, the texture highly suggestive of folk-music thanks to a plethora of unisons from the middle strings and melodies that veered to the modal if not the pentatonic.

For his mid-day segment, Bruce begins with a full, powerful declamation from all involved.  His rhythmic structure favours irregularity but the melodic content remains achromatic.  Your attention is attracted by the alternation of regular bar-lengths with one at the end of each clause that has two extra beats in it.  Here, the textural interest comes in duet passages for the mandolin and first violin, accomplished by Avital and Casleanu with excellent synchronicity.

As night nears, Bruce employs a slow descending scale in the first violin although the most striking music comes in a pair of duets for mandolin and cello.  The main impression is of a walking tune, the prevailing ambience suggesting the loose-limbed Grainger as an inspiration but, as well as the Celtic inferences, you can also hear shades of Jewish music – not the bending lines of klezmer stuff, but unadorned folk-tunes.  It all winds down to fine effect as the sun’s journey stops – although when, you’re not quite sure.

Cymbeline made an atmospheric end to a recital that aimed at a higher standard than its executants achieved.  Avital is a gifted performer, committed to every task and challenge and able to give his mandolin a compelling voice.  And it was pleasant to see the potential of the Giocoso musicians, even if (I think) they have some way to travel before another tour would be justified.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Played to order

BEETHOVEN BY BALLOT

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College

Wednesday March 14

 

                                                                     Grace Clifford

Kathryn Selby appears to have made the change from Federation Square’s Deakin Edge to this MLC venue in Kew/Hawthorn very successfully.  I wasn’t present at the final series recital last year, the first in the Tatoulis Auditorium, but this all-Beethoven night looked close to having sold out all 360-odd seats; clearly, a large group of her patrons have followed Selby east of the city.  Let’s hope these numbers stay high.

Of course, the impresaria/pianist was catering to her followers shamefully with this first program for 2018.   Last year, she polled her audiences in each state, asking what Beethoven they would all like to hear, and the results were unremarkable.   For the piano trio format, patrons wanted the Archduke – surprise, surprise.  From the cellist, the popular pick was the A Major Sonata, as opposed to the more interesting Op. 102 double; the violinist had to take up the Spring Sonata No 5, rather tan the dazzling Kreutzer No. 9 or the gripping C minor No. 7.

Selby inserted her own curtain-opener with the Allegretto in B flat WoO.39 which gets listed in the inventory of Beethoven’s piano trios but only just, as a work without a catalogue number.  An amiable single movement with unexpected subtleties, it’s yet another one where the piano sets the pace, having first dibs at all the material while the two strings spend most of their time repeating the subjects or providing sustained chords and ephemeral passage-work.  Still, this short fragment enjoyed carefully shaped treatment from Selby and her guests, violinist Grace Clifford and cellist Clancy Newman, both of whom have appeared previously in this series back in its city-based days.

In fact, Clifford made a serious impression on Melbourne when she performed Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 under Benjamin Northey with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra two years ago.  Since then, her production has become even more refined, displayed in its best light during her reading of the Beethoven sonata on this night.  It shouldn’t be hard to credit by those who have encountered her before, but the opening Allegro last Wednesday night was remarkably pure in projection, Clifford filling each corner of this decently-sized space with an individual timbre; not overdoing the vibrato or taking any distracting dynamic or rhythmic liberties – just a calm, luminous account of very familiar pages.

Both collaborators found an even easier working relationship in the work’s Adagio, sustaining the music’s pulse through some ornate figuration, then skittering past the insubstantial Scherzo.  Yet Clifford shone at her best in the rondo-finale with a splendid sonorous arch at the start that delighted for its clarity and self-possessed ardour, qualities that remained evident throughout the movement’s piano-flattering progress.

Newman’s view of the A Major Cello Sonata is a highly theatrical one, emphatically so in both outer movements.  Each dynamic shift was given full weight, starting with the first A minor passage after the string instrument’s first ad libitum interlude at bar 23.  Then the forte launch into E major at bar 64 punched us between the ears, as it did on its recurrence at bar 201 when I thought the cellist’s pizzicati were turning into percussive Bartokian snaps.  It kept you involved, for sure, but the movement’s unfolding came about punctuated by a sequence of shocks that interrupted the score’s usually even deliberation.

Later in the Allegro vivace conclusion to the sonata, Newman relished his stretches in the tenor and treble clefs to give Selby a good deal of competition throughout a pretty rapid treatment of these toccata-suggestive pages.  For all his driving energy, this cellist is near-faultless in his pitching of notes and has that vital necessity for any player attempting this work: he can be heard all the time, whether sustaining semibreve bass notes or striving against the keyboard’s fortissimo passage-work as at bars 209-212.

The players re-grouped for the Archduke and handled its pages with an easy familiarity.  In fact, Newman seemed to have a lot of it by heart and kept both eyes on Clifford’s bowing arm for much of the opening three movements, an observance that resulted in some fine close collaboration in the work’s Andante cantabile, like the second duet-strophe for both strings that rivalled the best readings I’ve heard, and their later collaboration after the piano stops faffing about and settles into the final re-statement and coda – pages that crown the preceding variations with consoling beneficence.

As a small observation, have you heard another pianist who can handle this work’s scherzo with as much calm authority as Selby?  I don’t just mean the eruption into a D flat Major waltz at bar 160, although that is briskly treated with exactitude always, but just simple statements like the piano entry at bar 16 which in her hands comes over with a sort of pert diffidence, trippingly on the tongue.

All the more remarkable because I had my doubts about the instrument that Selby used. While investigating the facilities at MLC last year, she found an old Bosendorfer grand in the music school’s storage  space and thought how appropriate such an instrument would be for a program of this character.   Quite right, even if these pianos-with-a-pedigree make you work harder than a modern-day Steinway or Yamaha.  The venerable German giant brought a powerful bloom to all four pieces but it struck me that Selby was tiring halfway through the Archduke finale, by about the point where the keyboard gets the sextuple shakes at bar 152 and keeps them going till arriving at bar 184.  For all that, you couldn’t fault the vivacity of the Presto conclusion, even if the victory impressed as hard-won.

 

 

 

And sometimes everything goes right

YOUTHFUL HEROES

Wilma & Friends

Ian Roach Hall, Scotch College, Melbourne

Tuesday March 6

                                                                   James Bakirtzis

Opening her series of recitals for this year, one-time concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Wilma Smith didn’t bother with trivia.  Tuesday night’s content comprised only three works but each was a notable challenge for most of the personnel involved.  If the evening had a star, it was horn player James Bakirtzis, an Old Scotch boy although not that old, who helped bracket the evening with Mozart’s Horn Quintet K 407 and an epitome of Romantic chamber music in the broad-bellied Horn Trio of Brahms.

Another of the notable entrants in these particular lists was pianist Tian Tian Lan who is either in his final year at the College or has only just finished his time there.

                                                                       Tian Tian Lan

This musician was put to as much work as Bakirtzis by not only handling the keyboard role in Brahms’ trio but also taking on the powerful piano part in the Shostakovich G minor Piano Quintet, giving a brilliant and enthusiastic account of the score’s rhetoric and poetry with a fearlessness that demonstrated his conscientious preparation for the task and a confidence that was only slightly shaken in the more urging pages of the Allegretto finale.

As her string guest-friends for the night, Smith welcomed violinist Miki Tsunoda, violist Lisa Grosman and cellist Eliah Sakakushev von Bismarck.  All of these collaborated in the Mozart and Shostakovich, Smith playing the ideal host by seconding Grosman as the extra viola required for the former, then providing a second violin in the Russian epic, if understandably pulling rank to take on the string line for the program’s concluding trio.

I’m probably not alone in admiring French horn performers for their sheer nerve.  It strikes me as being the most unreliable and untrustworthy instrument in the Western orchestra and, while you can cavil at all-too-evident blunders in Tchaikovsky and Mahler and have your teeth set on edge by mishaps in the Eroica or Brahms C minor Symphony, there is still a tolerant side to the complaints; once you’ve tried it, you know what physical and mental demands are required to get even a half-way decent sound out of the instrument.

Bakirtzis is the real thing, a prince among his tribe and advanced enough of a player to leave you – after a few nervous moments – with confidence in his ability to perform with immaculate eloquence and discrimination.  For the Mozart work, his production was pretty close to faultless in the opening Allegro; I heard only one slight slip in the exposition’s repeat and another in the recapitulation.  Even in the horn-exposing Andante, it was hard to fault the player’s breath control and phrase-shaping and he almost got through the movement without a hitch apart from a hesitation at bar 115. Later, in the semiquaver-happy Allegro/Rondo, this musician’s product came across as buoyant, unstudied and yet ensuring that everything was given its proper weight.

Bakirtzis’ support was headed by Tsunoda, the lower-voiced players not over-stretched in their roles.  For the first pages of the work, the violinist sounded a touch off-colour, as though forcing her tone to compensate for the horn which, in this hall, was offered little dynamic opposition.  But the ensemble settled to its labours happily enough, relishing a few moments in the sun with fluent and finely etched tuttis.

Lan opened the Shostakovich with appropriate gravity and, as required, set the running at certain points along the whole work’s path.  Like Bakirtzis, he’s a forward player, certain in the task and diligent in delivery.  Still, the point where this interpretation came alive for me was at the end of the Lento/Prelude, three bars before Rehearsal Number 15 in my score where all the strings play in unison for about 8 bars while the piano answers with its Baroque slow toccata semiquavers.  This was immaculate playing and a firm apologia for the beleaguered composer; it was only equalled by the players’ account of the following Adagio/Fugue where the linear integrity remained constant throughout – phrasing  mirror-sharp, each entry definite, the contrapuntal mesh ebbing and flowing without clotting.

In the Allegretto/Scherzo, the tempo was sensible without being as staid as some ensembles have opted for, with only a short exposed viola passage sounding off-point, probably at Rehearsal Number 54.  As an added bonus, Lan clearly revelled in his work here, staying just the right side of strident at the top register of his instrument.

Even better followed in the Lento/Intermezzo with a finely contrived duet for Tsunoda and Sakakushev where what looks all too simple on paper became a moving threnody, progressing sombrely to the entire work’s high-point at the appassionato canon between both violins and viola/cello: bars where many another group dips into hysteria but negotiated with a fierce determination by these interpreters.   In the Allegretto/Finale, once again I was brought up short by the fidelity of the strings’ octave work at Rehearsal Number 101 where you could not have asked for more finely graduated dynamic balance.

This quintet is a popular work, although not heard as often as it once was.  Possibly, musicians aspiring to its mysteries are brought up short by a difficult taut expressiveness and stringent demands in delineation.  Still, unlike so many other ad hoc groups who have essayed its terrors, these players got a whole lot right.

For an admirer of the Brahms Horn Trio, the night’s final offering proved a particularly full pleasure. beginning with a flawless Andante with Bakirtzis dominating the dynamic complex.  But what else could you expect?  Suffice it to say that Smith mounted a resonant counterweight in the soaring chain of canons and duets that gives this music its substance, if not its depth.  All three musicians made an enjoyment of the no-reason-to-stop Scherzo, one of those happy-minded Brahms creations that seem to multiply in number the older one gets.   Even in rapid-fire passages, Bakirtzis maintained his aplomb and Lan brought a bubbling energy to the mix.

By the time the Adagio had finished, you could be left in no doubt why this young horn player has gained so much attention in a short time.  The tone colour is malleable if still inclined to over-dominate, although Smith and Lan kept him honest during the brief stringendo beginning at bar 32 and also during the movement’s powerful climax at bar 69. As with everything so far, it was near-impossible to cavil at anything in the bounding finale, apart from one error from Lan on the second-last page; not surprising as he’d put in a solid night and this active set of pages is a pretty big ask in the score’s context.

But, for all these small pinpricks, this night’s recital was memorable; certainly for the technical address and security of all concerned and their fidelity to what we know of the composer’s aims.  But, more importantly, the three works offered a generous musical landscape, elucidated by these interpretations which gave us plentiful insights into the composers’ aesthetic reaches.  Which is why some of us go out at night.

 

 

So much to hear

BACH MARATHON

3MBS

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday February 18

                                                                       Chris Howlett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Useful = accessible

TRAVELLING TALES

Adam Simmons and the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble

45 downstairs, Flinders Lane

Thursday December 7

                                                                     Adam Simmons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Testing times

BEGINNINGS

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday November 20

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Tension squared

THE END OF TIME

Ensemble Liaison

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday October 24

                                                                  Ensemble Liaison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dark consolations

RUSSIAN LULLABY

Songmakers Australia

Melbourne Recital Centre

Wednesday October 4

                                                                  Merlyn Quaife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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