Can you please everyone?

NOEL! NOEL!

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday December 8

Bonnie-De-La-Hunty_20

                                                                 Bonnie de la Hunty

I get worried, irrationally so, about the use of exclamation marks in concert titles.   It almost works in something like the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra’s choice of Espana! for a program earlier this year that turned out to be disappointing; but then, you can justify the punctuation there as simple advertising colour, whereas you wouldn’t swallow it if the advertising gurus had simply proposed Spain!   It’s become the Brandenburgers’ custom to give their Christmas event this doubled-up title, so much so that most of us swallow it without thinking.   But the practice suggests seasonal hyperventilation more than anything else.   For most of us, the word is associated with The First Nowell carol which, despite (or because of) its venerability, doesn’t suggest excitement in any of its verses.

You can find something of the same kind of hyperbole in events called Christmas!  even if that mild explosion suggests something like Eureka! (or more relevantly, Thank God!).    Or is that comparison really valid?   It’s as though the French word for the feast-day is up there with Hallelujah!, although the latter is a true exclamation.   Where’s the difference between Noel! and Paques!?    I’m minded to celebrate Epiphany! next month, and my late Anglican mother would have got a charge out of observing Michaelmas!  not to forget my Greek kin’s potential for revelling in  a self-stimulating Dormition!

Still, we’re all glad to have arrived, over-punctuated or not, at a time of spiritual cosiness and behavioural benevolence  for once in 2018.   The ABO and its occasional Choir gave us a  prelude to the celebrations with yet another program full of material calculated to have something for everyone.   Forgetting the inevitable American element (confined to Irving Berlin’s White Christmas this time round), the seasonal content prevailed even if a fair number of the offerings had no relevance at all.

Setting the bar both high and low, ABO artistic director Paul Dyer opened the night with a chant by Hildegard of Bingen, O Euchari in laeta via: a song to St. Eucharius who was the first bishop of Trier.    The abbess swallowed the story that Eucharius was one of the original disciples and saw Christ, although those who insist on facts believe that he didn’t take up his crozier until the late 3rd century AD.   I thought it was an odd choice to begin, even if it gave a fine introduction to de la Hunty’s pure, untroubled soprano, but December 8 is the saint’s feast-day – which is fine for those of us in the Murdoch Hall on this particular Saturday but which may puzzle later audiences in Paddington, the Angel Place Recital Hall, Wollongong, Parramatta, Mosman and Newtown.    In Alex Palmer’s arrangement, the transparent chant loses its innocence by being strait-jacketed into a 4/4 beat, supported by inoffensive sustained string chords which give way to syncopated chugging, the ABO singers entering near the end.

The choir got down to more impressive business with the Advent plainsong Rorate coeli, given a decent going-over by the male voices, the process not too flabby in precision since Dyer left the singers to their own devices, even if some individual voices broke through; such participants not subscribing to the usual practice that asks for the sublimation of personality for the sake of the general texture.   The body’s women followed up with another Advent specialty –  Veni, veni Emmanuel –  that morphed into a march for drum and strings.

Speaking of percussion, Brian Nixon made himself the night’s linkman, chaining events together through glissades on mini-tubular bells or soft cymbal strokes.   At this point, he led the corps into Cruger’s Nu komm der Heyden heyland – well, a version of it, I suppose, based on the work’s inclusion in the composer’s Praxis pietatis melica hymnbook.  This was followed by Johannes Eccard’s setting of Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier, a chorale-like work for five lines, transformed into a rather militant march which seemed at odds with the Nativity-meditation situation proposed in the text.   Still, this was deftly arranged for the forces available, vocal and orchestral, and finished off an opening bracket of distinction, despite those carping points raised above.

Section Two opened with the traditional speech from Dyer – an address in which ‘beautiful’ and ‘wonderful’ featured heavily with a bonus feature or two – introducing the orchestra by their first names, and picking out three children in the audience for some personal attention (pretty much confined to ‘How old are you?’).  While shepherds watched, starring de la Hunty, followed the familiar Christopher Tye melody, complete with double-length notes at the start and end of each line.   Monteverdi’s Laudate dominum began carefully enough with a chaste band – harpsichord, guitar, organ and drum; then took a Jordi Savall turn into a jam for the two violins of Matt Bruce and Ben Dollman which had all the signposts of pre-scripted improvisation, and ended with a welter of vocal floridity from de la Hunty that took us into the 1610 Vespers universe.   Very nice in parts, but I can’t see what Psalm 117 has to do with Christmas.

Nor for that matter was the Gartan Mother’s Lullaby suggestive of much beyond Irish melancholy.   De la Hunty took part in this simple lyric; nothing too challenging and the main brunt of the work fell to the choir in yet another of Alex Palmer’s arrangements which found room in its later stages for the trio of sackbuts that had enriched the German pieces heard earlier.    Showing their mettle, the choir sang Guerrero’s Maria Magdalena motet, putting something of a strain on the tenors – forced to split into two groups like the sopranos, but working hard between the five of them to contribute meaningfully to the complex.   This work deals with the famous penitent and the other Marys visiting the tomb to anoint Christ’s body, which on this night seemed to be putting the Easter cart before the Christmas horse.    However, this interpolation served little real purpose except to remind you of how splendidly the Ensemble Gombert deals with music of this nature: in this instance, the piece lacked fluency, moving past with an unexpected insistence on a putative bar-line’s dominion.

It wasn’t all downhill from here on as we entered Part Three but the hiatus points grew more numerous.   Palmer’s arrangement of We three kings gave lots of exposure to the brass, nifty effects brightening up a carol that has some excellent lines married to an execrable, mournful tune.   You could always entertain yourself by imaging what Webern would have done with this material; probably something a tad more subtle than this frivolity  which suggested a sort of Klanmgfarbenmelodie for the Common Man.   Another left-field construct followed with a piece of Rameau revisionism, billed as O nuit from the opera Hippolyte et Aricie.   The actual material referred to is a sprightly trio for soloist and two chorus lines addressed to the goddess Diana, not the slow salute to Night that we heard, fabricated by Joseph Noyon over two centuries after Rameau’s short prayer was written.  This was an a cappella number for the choir supporting de la Hunty but, as it was in essence a plea to Night to calm the unhappy, its connection to Christmas could only be described as distant.   However, the effect made for an amiably soothing oasis, alongside yet another Palmer arrangement, this time a sober version of O little town of Bethlehem for brass quartet (the sackbuts, plus Leanne Sullivan’s baroque trumpet) and percussion.

Palmer’s voice appeared en clair for his own A sparkling Christmas, written for string quintet, amalgamating Ding! dong! merrily on high, Hark! the herald angels sing, God rest ye merry, gentlemen and Joy to the world!   This melange showed a cleverness in juxtapositioning, if not much actual wit in the process, and a preference for the chugging rhythmic drive that disturbed the earlier Hildegard revamp.

The program’s last section, comprising six numbers, proved the least satisfying, possibly because its elements were so disparate.   Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds’ Only in sleep sets US poet Sarah Teasdale’s reminiscence of childhood for soprano and choir.  It’s a sensitive treatment, bordering on poignancy and aimed at yanking the heart-strings with a shapely melodic line and rich harmonization that brings to mind the modern American choral school of composition for university choirs, although this composer is essentially a product of his own country (without too much of that pseudo-spirituality that has pervaded the Baltic over the last half-century) and British influences.   Only in sleep was a fine choice to display the guest soprano’s clarity of timbre, even if Teasdale’s text retained its mysteries.

Opting to have de la Hunty essay Handel’s Let the bright seraphim was not a clever move.  The singer who takes on this show-piece needs to have more energy and drive from the diaphragm; yes, all the notes were there and pretty cleanly negotiated but the production lacked power.   Sullivan’s trumpet handled the many imitations with general success but, despite all that attractive Baroque bling,  the aria comes from an oratorio about the judge of Israel, Samson, and has no inbuilt suggestions of Messianic prophecy to give it a connection to the night’s supposed theme.

Berlin’s popular hit seems to be a favourite in these ABO Christmas concerts.  I think we’ve heard this Jonathan Rathbone arrangement before; it’s for male voices, fused  in barbershop quartet-style harmonization, and here enjoyed high approval.   De la Hunty returned for another ABO regular: Adam’s O holy night, as re-imagined by Palmer and accomplished with fine use of the limited forces at hand.   Again, you would have preferred more projection and emotional conviction from the soloist but her line only suffered severe drowning-out at unavoidable climactic points,   The well-used soloist also took part in Gruber’s Stille nacht – first verse German, second verse French, third verse English – with Tommie Andersson’s guitar a welcome reminder of the carol’s first performance, the whole effect only momentarily marred by Dyer’s interpolation of an aimless harpsichord dribble between the first two verses.

O come, all ye faithful brought up the rear  –  in the David Willcocks version, I believe.  A classic of its type, it might have been more sensibly placed closer to the start of proceedings; after all, it is an invitation more than a recessional.   But it rounded off the night’s final four pieces with a sterling reinforcement of the reason why we were all gathered together.

I was at the second of the two performances on this Saturday and audience numbers were respectable but seemed to be down on previous years.   It’s probably time that the Noel! Noel! exercise enjoyed a revamp.   For example, when 7 out of 18 pieces programmed have nothing to do with Christmas, you have to wonder how close this event is veering towards the anything-goes approach of Carols by Candlelight.  A wealth of music to do with the season flies under most organizations’ collective radar year after year, while we still hear all those threadbare tunes, hackneyed matter that may give the comfort of familiarity but offers little spiritual or musical elation.

 

 

 

 

Glitzy surface; anything down below?

SEASON FINALE GALA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Saturday December 1

          Vengerov

                                                                     Maxim Vengerov

We seem to be in gala mode at least three times a year these days, the MSO celebrating the year’s beginning (if a bit late after the real thing), its middle and its conclusion (if a tad early, what with a Christmas program, a handful of Messiahs, and four live soundtrack supports for The Empire Strikes Back screenings still to be played across the coming half- month).   This concert probably gained its exceptional status due to the appearance of violinist Maxim Vengerov as guest artist, the visiting conductor a familiar pair of shoulders in Markus Stenz who was greeted with something like acclaim by an audience that seemed far more representative of the general population than is usual.

Stenz opened the celebration soberly enough with the Prelude and Transformation Music to Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal.   In fact, the last time this scene-change music appeared on an MSO program was in 2004 under Stenz during his final months as the body’s artistic director/chief conductor.    Both works, linked seamlessly here, depend for success pretty much on balance and unanimity of chording, mainly because not much is taking place except a sequence of motifs – The Last Supper, The Grail, Faith, Cry of Anguish, Sacred Spear, Saviour’s Lament, Bell Theme – which are treated almost side by side as Wagner tiresomely confronts his uneasiness with Catholic impedimenta and a saga of pre-Dan Brown theological silliness

Most of the brass block entries came across without much distress, but then a good many are low-lying and in this music Wagner doesn’t call for any split-second, abrupt chords.  Ditto the strings who take their time about things.   Both the woodwind and woodwind-plus-brass utterances en masse were successful only half of the time and the final long sustained chords of the Prelude proper impressed as strained and not just from the top flute line.

Not much disturbed the slow processional which accompanies the scene change as Gurnemanz leads Parsifal into the hall of the Grail Temple.   It’s never that convincing, even off the stage, as the composer attempts to convey the knights’ majesty and faithful stolidity which inevitably winds up sounding pompous, self-regarding and several spiritual light-years away from the mystery that is about to be celebrated.   Stenz generated a compelling, full-bodied sound from his players, making much of the climaxes to the processional slow march.   At its best, the transformation holds a glowing richness which sounded splendid in this ambience, more gripping than you can experience in your garden-variety opera house or theatre.

Vengerov gave the premiere of Qigang Chen’s violin concerto, La joie de la souffrance, in October 2017.    It’s a co-commission by the Beijing Music Festival (where it was first played), the Orchestre national du Capitol de Toulouse, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition (where it was a compulsory work for the six finalists), and the MSO.    The score answers to a fair number of godparents and, as you’d anticipate with such a multipartite fostering, has several disparate bases to cover.

In sum, Chen’s concerto is old-fashioned.   Very often during its progress, I was reminded of 19th century repertoire warhorses by Bruch and Saint-Saens; not the vocabulary so much, although at times that also seemed close, but the shape of the piece and its requirements of the soloist.   Colourful shades and timbres it has in spades, from vivid percussion flashes to simple, sinuous melodies.   The composer takes as his jumping-off mark a Chinese melody, Yangguan Sandie, which appears to be concerned with the parting of two friends, one of them leaving from the westernmost post of civilization for the unknown lands outside the Chinese empire.

In part, this fulcrum song uses part of a poem by Wang Wei, whose verses (the same as these?) were used by Mahler in the last movement of his Das Lied von der Erde – the interesting and controlled lines before the composer inserts his own, emotionally inflated conclusion to this movement that too many commentators hail as a transcendent masterpiece while some of us find it sentimentally bloated, out of kilter with the majority of the song’s lines, and not very consonant with the preceding five movements.

Chen opens his concerto with laid-back virtuosic flourishes before announcing his theme, and then offers variations on it.   You hear other melodic matter, but not much.   The move from rapid-moving fleetness to (in this case) pentatonic suggestiveness in elongated lyrical pages is what brought to mind exemplars like the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations and Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy.   Vengerov persevered through some deliberately winsome curvetting, followed by soulful melodies pronounced in the manner of a pop singer: start out your note blandly uninflected, then develop a vibrato with a crescendo and presto! you have expressiveness  .  .  .  except you don’t: you have a gimmick which wearies by repetition.

Not that Chen tired you out.   His score was mobile, very intriguing for its scoring in faster segments, gifted with a rolling, solid tune (or two?) that he metamorphosed with skill, if not much rigour.    Do you retain much of the composition some hours after one audition?   Not really but, unlike so many products of these times, you couldn’t object to hearing the concerto again.    It’s not a waste of time; expounded by this soloist and a willing-enough orchestra, it roused unexpected approbation from a receptive audience.

Thoughtfully, Vengerov and Stenz had organised an encore: Kreisler’s Tambourin chinois. Those of us who belong to an older generation know this frivolity pretty well and it’s a piquant enough scrap of pseudo-Orientalism with some brilliant display passages for the soloist.   I can’t explain the mind-set that decided to put it alongside Chen’s work; something like following Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with an Enescu Rumanian Rhapsody  –  the gestures are vaguely comparable, but the aesthetic imbalance is ludicrous.

Stravinsky and his secretary/amanuensis Robert Craft railed against interpretations of the composer’s The Rite of Spring ballet when they served chiefly as a vehicle for the showman conductor.   As the decades have passed since the work’s 1913 premiere, orchestras have become inured to the score’s sound-production innovations and its rhythmic irregularities.   Sonorous messes like the Introduction which once required decisive, if not finicky, indications from a conductor, especially in the four bars before the reversion to Tempo 1, can now be trusted to the individuals involved.   Unless you’re a Boulez type who leaves nothing to chance by adopting a directorial style that resembles autocratic semaphore.

Stenz worked the score for maximum dramatic effect, interpolating himself as the central axis of the performance; for example, during the Les Augures pritaniers pages, he followed the predictable path of over-stressing the prevailing dynamic, but then put himself front-and-centre with whole-body spasms on each of the horn sforzando accents, followed by an attention-attracting over-lengthy general pause at rehearsal number 22 in my old Hawkes pocket score.   Less choreography was involved in supervising the Jeu du rapt, but there’s more to do here than simply let things chug along their 2/4 path.   You could have required more definition in the block chords that punctuate the final 16 bars of this section, interruptions that should come over like whip-cracks.

Years ago, I can remember being worried by Stenz’s slow pace for the opening 6 bars of the Rondes printanieres which led into a very heavy handling of the ensuing pages and a poco rit. in its final bar which was anything but poco.   The same problem recurred on this night.   On the other hand, the Jeux des cites rivales and Cortege du sage proved exciting to experience.  The Part 1 conclusion, Danse de la terre, followed suit, even if you might have been happier with a sharper etching out of fabric details like the trumpet grupetti that begin two bars before rehearsal number 77 and which bite through the whirling melange until the final six bars when they double the upper woodwind in syncopations that reflect the Augures.

In the second half of the ballet, the approach began with a near-solicitude for the slow-moving quavers that surround the thematic fragment on which Stravinsky builds these mystical pages that irreverently bring to mind some of Holst’s outer planets.   Indeed, one of the few defects in this part of the performance came in the conductor’s emphasis on sustained general pauses, as in the two that precede the Glorification de l’elue.

Here, Stenz showed great trust in  his players, content with fairly skimpy gestures, more happy to dance the work along.   The more jerky sections of the concluding Danse sacrale revealed a laudable synchronicity from the whole body despite the occasional splay coming through rather than a professional, emphatic unanimity of utterance.   The final fermata at rehearsal number 180 again impressed/disconcerted by its length.

You couldn’t call it a rough reading of this ground-breaking masterpiece; it sat streets ahead of some distressingly uneven performances heard from this orchestra in the second half of the last century.    What was missing appeared to be delicacy – which might seem strange when talking about this ultra-percussive work.   But it seemed to be tellingly unsubtle in its placid moments, not helped by some articulation difficulties that came from Jack Schiller’s bassoon right from the first bars, the problem appearing to be due to an instrument key rather than his reeds.   But you were left hanging many times, waiting for pointed solos to emerge from the susurrus; pinpricks from the piccolo trumpet, the D and E flat clarinet, Dale Barltrop’s solo violin – all were faint echoes of their proper selves.

But what do I know?   The audience erupted into an applause avalanche at the end and Stenz seemed delighted, smiling happily while panting as though he’d just completed a taxing 400 metres sprint.    If you like your Rite loud and punchy, this was a fine reading; for me, any live encounter with the work is worthwhile, but there are so many details, orchestration diamonds scattered throughout its fabric, that I was sorry not to encounter.

 

 

 

 

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Lest we forget? Not a chance

IF NOT IN THIS WORLD

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble

Church of All Nations, Carlton

Sunday November 11 at 7 pm

Menin_Gate_at_midnight_(Will_Longstaff)

                                      Menin Gate at Midnight   (Will Longstaff, 1927) 

This event marked an ominous date.  It observed the centenary of the armistice that concluded World War I, a time when the simple-minded and the wilfully ignorant among us claim that Australia ‘came of age’ – a concept as childish as that which sustained our hunting fathers into believing that blooding at a deer hunt conferred adulthood.

At this concert, you were confronted by no romance, no celebration, no tub-thumping patriotism but by the dour face of war, specifically the economically-fuelled debacle of 1914-18, with the three composers featured on this Arcko program focused on the European theatre of destruction rather than digging up their source material from a Turkish littoral that has yielded a remarkably slight musical crop.

Only one of the writers was familiar to me.   Helen Gifford’s compositions featured on several programs of the New Music series run by George Dreyfus in this city during the early 1960s, and later at International Society for Contemporary Music events in those halcyon years when that body had an active Melbourne branch.  Her two colleagues on this night – Rohan Phillips (one of Gifford’s cousins) and Andrew Harrison –  are new names, although both have been presences on Melbourne’s music scene and are close contemporaries, having been born in 1971.

Interwoven with the program’s musical content were extracts from a 1919 poem: An English Vision of Empire by Frederick Phillips, grandfather of  Arcko founder/conductor, Timothy Phillips.   This substantial work follows a familiar British pattern, probably reaching its finest flower in Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome of 1842 where encomiums to national virtue and exhortations to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield were part of the apparatus of every gentleman’s thought.   Melbourne actor Bob Ruggiero read these extracts with little of the ardour that informed the poet; in fact, all four of these selected segments proved dusty-dry, even the final panegyric to Empire-supporting virtue that concludes with a prayer to God for a continuation of his directing hand which has, of course, given us the victory.

Rohan Phillips, in his Meditations on Der Krieg for small orchestra, took inspiration from a series of prints made by German artist Otto Dix.   From the original 50, Phillips chose seven for treatment: Bei Langemarck, Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor, Essenholer bei Pilkem, Zerfallender Kampfgraben, Gesehen am Steilhang von Clery-sur-Somme, Abend in der Wijtschaete-Ebene, and Nachtliche Begegnung mit einem Irrsinnigen.   Helpfully, each of the prints was projected on the Church hall’s back wall.

For this work where breaks between the scenes were minimal, Phillips kept to a continuously self-referring vocabulary in which dislocated or isolated notes and sounds provided the main action.   While the initial sound scape tended to softness, it was soon punctuated with abrupt blurts that cut up the backdrop of over-arching single notes  and overlapping timbre textures.   For all that, the score reached passages of stridency that were confrontational through insistence, intended to support Dix’s pictures.

Yet, if the music was intended to provide a commentary on each of the seven paintings, I’m not sure that aim was achieved; well, not to my ear which, for example, found little difference between the ration-carrying illustration and the following view of a disintegrating trench.  Phillips’ canvas of piano single notes disturbed by curt interruptions progressed to a predilection for gradually accrued clusters and one-note crescendi.

The intention was to communicate desolation, an unrelieved and grim hopelessness which reached its high-point in the final pictures where the artist drew bodies lying across a plain and an encounter with a lunatic.  This was as close to image-painting as the work got yet the piece stayed true to its origins, juxtaposing  manic and brief activity with a grey instrumental stasis.   To Phillips’ credit, his musical construct took on a life of its own and, while it was most informative to see Dix’s work as a sort of concomitant, the score stood up to scrutiny on its own terms.

Andrew Harrison’s 2012 solo piano composition The drumfire was incessant and continued all night with unabated fury  was performed by Peter Dumsday whom I last heard playing Brendan Colbert’s Like a maelstrom about three years ago at this venue with the Arckos.   It was hard to follow the composer’s outline of his own work; for example, the proposed march-like figure at the initial Arrival at Pozieres Ridge segment flew completely above my radar, but the suggestion of menace in the triple-piano bass clusters and lurching middle register material was impressively conceived.  As opposed to Phillips Meditations, this work presented as solid, subterranean sound blocks with rapid slashes in alt to heighten tension.

As you’d expect from a representation of the lead-up to and the actuality of a massive artillery bombardment, the piano’s percussive nature was explored with high aggression, which meant many pages of hard graft for Dumsday.  The composer inserted two ‘over-the-top’ whistles into the work’s progress, the first followed by downward note-packed cascades, the second prompting movement in the opposite direction.  Despite the work’s recorded/proposed length of about 9 or 10 minutes, it seemed a good deal longer, stretching the narrative to an uncomfortable extent, as though the music could not find resolution . . . which is probably part of the composer’s intention, suggesting the unbearably elongated nature of such an engagement and the ambiguity of its outcome in these terrible fields where so much life was squandered for so little territorial gain.

Gifford’s Menin Gate piano solo has its origin in Will Longstaff’s celebrated painting (also projected on to the space’s rear wall) in which the white shades of dead soldiers pass by the memorial structure in Ypres.   Written 13 years ago, its emotional landscape presents as both solid and stolid; not as fast to move onward as the preceding works on this night but allowing sounds and textures to resonate.  In certain passages, you sense the same desolation as in the other compositions programmed, but the writing features a logic that recalls Webern’s manner of ordered pocks of sound.

Joy Lee gave a calm account of the piece which eventually moved to a grinding high point, retreating to more impressionistic washes, blurs of fabric melded into block-layers of timbre by hefty use of the sustaining pedal, until the composer calls a halt with a last, lengthy chord.  As with Phillips’ work, the visual element provided an extra environment but this music was less concerned with illustration and more involved with a gentle mourning, underlining Owen’s unforgettable observation about the pity of war.

Harrison’s If Not In This World is a kind of cantata, its text provided by extracts from a letter written by the composer’s great-great-uncle, Leslie Robins, who fought and was wounded at Pozieres and later died at Gueudecourt; letters from the Bendigo soldier’s mother, Emma Robins, to the War Office, seeking information about her son’s wounds and then asking for any keepsakes he might have left behind after he was killed; and two bureaucratic responses from that Office.

Soprano Justine Anderson sang the words of Emma Robins with fine responsiveness, adding a kind of resigned urgency, then resignation to the mother’s requests for information; a hard ask as the words were unaffected, both moving and prosaic together.   Robert Latham’s tenor was put to a harder task with Leslie Robins’ communications which were pretty well confined to details about what was happening in the field.   The post-Britten arioso adopted was moving ahead clearly enough when suddenly Harrison overwhelmed his singer with a solid battery of brass and percussion, a feature which recurred in the first three of the soldier’s accounts; without printed copies of the words, I think most of us would have been lost in trying to follow the work’s path.

Latham was not only hard put to it in terms of audibility but was also stretched in negotiating his line’s higher reaches.  Compared to the string-heavy background to Anderson’s delivery and the looping grace of her part, Latham enjoyed little respite probably inevitable when your talk is all of machine guns, attacks, bombardments, death, nocturnal alarms and wounds, although the brisk, blasting instrumental sonorities abated when the letter moved on to the topic of convalescence.

The work takes its title from Robins’ last written words – ‘Till we meet again, if not in this world, then the next.’   Harrison brings a resonant lyricism to these phrases, combining both voices in a resigned pairing, repeating the words to reinforce a simple memorial to the sombre dignity of death and grief.  To his credit, the composer avoided sentimentality, notably in these final pages where you would most expect it.  In fact, although Harrison used a wide range of effects in manipulating his chamber orchestra, what remained with you at the end was the familiar ordinariness of this small historical vignette, which was essentially repeated thousands of times across this country.

Here was an intelligent and honourable way to observe such a centenary.  None of the music drew attention to itself  for superficial reasons like virtuosity or emotional self-indulgence.   The Arcko players worked with laudable success under Timothy Phillips’ fluent direction, making few apparent errors in two scores that exposed a good many solo players.

It would be asinine to suggest that this concert was enjoyable, but its elements combined to reinforce your admiration and sorrow for the willing sons of a milder, simpler generation who marched with innocence to the slaughter, as well as taking you to something approaching despair when you recall what was going to happen across Europe a little over 20 years later.

 

 

 

Return to top form

MEDITERRANEO

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday September 15

                                                                       Daniel Pinteno

In its original schedule, the ABO was to have played host this month to senior Italian baroque violinist Stefano Montanari, who promised a program that included Telemann, Vivaldi, Locatelli and those three household names – Gregori, Heinichen and Pisendel.  Somewhere along the way, a few wheels fell off this arrangement and artistic director Paul Dyer had to find another musician of similar ilk – which he did in Daniel Pinteno, one of Spain’s luminaries in the field of Baroque performance and, for good measure, musicology.

The only name to survive from the original program was Vivaldi, who scored two appearances on Saturday night.   While the main intention of the exercise was to present Spanish scores that most of us have never heard, the Venetian master falls under the occasion’s all-encompassing title.  And it’s pretty obvious that Vivaldi’s works would have been very familiar to the major (and minor) courts of the Iberian peninsula, just as they were across Europe.

Along with two Vivaldi concertos – La Notte for flute with the ABO’s principal Melissa Farrow doing solo honours, and No. 9, the second of the D Major ones from L’estro armonico – Pinteno headed half of a Charles Avison concerto grosso, one of those that the British composer based on Scarlatti sonatas, but the rest of his offerings were complete novelties: an overture by Vicente Basset, the Concerto a 5 from Giacmo Facco’s Pensieri Adriamonici collection, a substantial overture by Felix Maximo Lopez, and a surprising C Major sinfonia by Gaetano Brunetti.

It might have been the effect of Pinteno’s preparation, or it could have been the nature of the music, but this set of (mainly) unfamiliar compositions brought out the best from the orchestra which was back treating with a school of music that emphasizes the players’ talents and substantiates their reputation as members of a first-class band of Baroque expert interpreters.   Not that everything was perfect in detail but the strings and wind produced an unfailing radiance of address and emotional commitment that kept you engaged, even through several repeats.

An opening Basset overture set the interpretative direction with an arresting, biting attack from the whole body of strings, plus Dyer’s harpsichord and Tommie Andersson’s theorbo.   Pinteno played/directed with an involving physicality, contributing a languid middle-movement solo before a concluding presto engaged by the ensemble with spiky aggression, carefully harnessed and distinguished by excellently disciplined terraced dynamics.   Facco’s more substantial E Major violin concerto built on this foundation with a strong and voluble address in its opening Allegro, although you had to wait for the central Adagio to hear any extended solo work from Pinteno, while the finale followed the first movement’s model in giving the solo violin only short bursts of individuality.  Still, you heard enough to take in the guest director’s pliancy of line which depends less on mobility of rhythm and more on milking his part of its expressive potential, handling his exposed passages like a singer bursting from the ruck.

Farrow gave a graceful, measured approach to the Vivaldi suite-concerto, her string accompaniment cut back to a 3-3-2-2-1-plus continuo format.  Her sequence of trills in the initial Largo demonstrated impeccable control and projection, followed by a balancing Presto of high vivacity with the soloist subsumed into the general texture.  Another Largo gave Farrow an opportunity to highlight her supple, carefully controlled timbre for which she avoided unnecessary histrionics or attention-grabbing gasps, again followed by a Presto with some unexpected room for solo exposure.  The final two movements followed this slow-fast pattern, the three Il sonno pages a nice study in stasis, while the finale yielded the concerto’s most interesting activity, not least for a sparkling duet involving the flute and Pinteno’s violin from bars 166 to 177.

Concluding the first half, the Lopez Overtura con tutti instrumenti brought a clutch of wind players on-stage: pairs of oboes and horns, along with Brock Imison’s bassoon,  Pinteno increased his strings to about 20 but the composer gave his brace of oboes plenty of exposure, both Emma Black and Kirsten Barry entering the lists with impressive panache.  Indeed, the wind added a piquancy to what is a melodically ordinary construct and handled their responsibilities with very few minor glitches from the horns and only a handful of questionable intonation question-marks at cadential points from the oboes.

Pinteno enjoyed some solo work in this score as well.  Despite the interest of his well-proportioned output, he seems to have the occasional pitching problem, almost suggesting that he’s trying on a different temperament to his surrounds.  It didn’t happen often, this deviation; just enough to make you wonder if he was over-working his output.  Without doubt, he showed complete involvement in the work at hand and was no fly-in, fly-out guest, taking part in everything programmed, keeping a firm hand on his forces in this Lopez work’s final Allegro that became a rondo with two unexpected minuet inserts for metrical contrast and relief of tension.

Any questioning of Pinteno’s articulation disappeared in his post-interval account of Vivaldi’s D Major Concerto from L’estro armonico.  Here was aggressive, button-bursting work peppered with crisp solos in the outer movements, while the Larghetto revealed a master’s hand in splendidly controlled trills peppering what is almost continuous solo playing between the first four and last five bars; the overall impression here for me was a sort of curvaceous angularity, Pinteno’s delivery intensely sympathetic, enough to make this the night’s high-water mark and a clear-enough explanation of why Dyer chose this musician to take charge of his ABO.

For reasons best known to themselves, the body settled on presenting only the first half of Avison’s D Major Concerto grosso: the second of the four in D of his Op. 6 set of 12 based on Scarlatti sonatas.  The opening Largo came across with lordly assurance, a striding post-Handelian strut to its progress, while the succeeding Con furia brought into play lots of virtuoso scampering which showed no sign of letting-up though both its halves were repeated.

The winds returned for Brunetti’s Il Maniatico sinfonia for which the ABO’s principal cello Jamie Hey took on the designated role of the composer’s ‘maniac’ who has to be brought into line by the rest of the players.  As it turned out, the solo cello’s mania turned out to be an ongoing trill or a repeated figure of a 2nd which the solo line stayed with throughout most of the four movements, an idee fixe going nowhere.

This score made a sterling match with the Lopez overture that concluded the evening’s first half, both for its compositional felicity – if not originality – and its size.  The difference between this and pretty much everything else on the program was its Classic period self-aplomb, with a broader melodic ambit than its predecessors in this night;’s work.   You could tire quite easily of the manic 2nds from the cello, Brunetti having locked his protagonist into a monotonous personality; but the orchestral bracketing showed a brand of sophistication that opened up a new compositional prospect – like hearing Haydn after Geminiani.

After some recent disappointments, I found this concert served as a refreshing reminder of the ABO’s concerted talents when negotiating works from across the Baroque, and the players’ remarkable ability to enter into works that –  in some cases  –  have been left untouched for centuries until Pinteno and his collaborators came along to resurrect them,  Indeed, I doubt that the visiting violinist could have found a group more talented and committed to assisting him in his undertaking which, far from being a dry-as-dust musicological exercise, whetted the appetite for more similar unveilings.  Dyer and his organization would do well to bring this musician back to us in the not-too-distant future.

 

To begin, the usual kerfuffle

THE HARPIST: XAVIER DE MAISTRE

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday May 12

                                                                             Xavier de Maistre

In one of the most publicized ABO events for some time, French harpist de Maistre gave lavishly of his talents in Boieldieu’s C Major (ostensibly) Concerto, following this with two transcriptions of well-known Spanish pieces and one of his signature offerings in an arrangement (I presume, his own) of Smetana’s Vltava – well, a good deal of it, although the Country Wedding  polka from bars 122 to 177 disappeared completely and certain parts of the river’s progress to Prague disappeared for the sake of some flashy cadenzas.

At the evening’s start, the players came onstage and for once, I thought, we would be spared the customary address from artistic director Paul Dyer.   Sadly, no; we were yet again subjected to a plethora of laudatory adjectives: two ‘spectaculars’, a ‘marvellous’, three ‘wonderfuls’, two ‘most beautifuls’ plus a ‘really beautiful’, a ‘most spectacular’, a ‘really incredible’, a ‘real treat’, a ‘gorgeous’ and a ‘most moving’.  It was hard to keep up with the flow and so I might have missed a few stray self-encomiums.

It was obviously going to be a night of superlatives  –  but then, it always is.  As for actual information as opposed to hyperbole, it was thin on the ground.  The soloist lives in Monaco with his wife and young daughter; he gets to see them for only a few months of his professionally active year.  Also, we would be hearing Ravel’s Pavane  pour une infante defunte on period instruments, ‘probably for the first time’ – and this was a notable experience because . . . ?  At all events, we were promised a sort of historical tour.  And we got one, although little of the changes were rung by the ABO itself.  Mozart’s Symphony No. 20 in D dated from 1772; C.P.E. Bach’s Symphony No. 1 was written in 1775-6; the harp concerto comes from 1800.  Granted, the Ravel scrap was composed in 1889 but its introduction to this program, given the ABO’s specified operational territory, was aberrational.

Unless my note-taking was a fault, Dyer had referred to Mozart in his opening address as ‘this little protege’, although of whom I am still in doubt.  Anyway, the performance featured Dyer accompanying his orchestra on the harpsichord which, for much of the time, was inaudible.  He might have expended his energies better in restraining the horns’ volume which drowned out the violin action for far too much of the energetic first Allegro.  Certainly, the work was played first-up but you might have expected better tuning from the oboes in a hall that was by no means cold.

The same problem arose in the Andante where the solo flute, doubling the first violins an octave higher, was marginally off-pitch.  Despite the verve in the string attack at its opening, the finale was weighed down by the emergence of the wind in bar 5, so much so that the presto speed that set up expectations was dragged back into more of a jog-trot.  Here again, the brass were over-encouraged;  God knows, their parts are simple enough, so there’s not much point in drawing attention to them by braying.

We also enjoyed a harpsichord continuo in the Boieldieu concerto; none of the four performances to which I have access use a keyboard, but let that pass.  De Maistre has great talent and a fine fluency, yet his outline of the first movement Allegro brillante impressed as wayward; on occasions, small passing notes didn’t sound in his instrument’s upper register, and both he and Dyer played around with the music’s metre, on occasions suggesting a practice of Chopinesque rubato that came into play a couple of decades down the chronological track.  This proved even more noticeable in the short Andante lento where the strings stuck to their last by employing no vibrato.  Both this middle segment and the attacca-linked Rondo finale were in C minor, the latter a fine sample of excellent interplay between soloist and orchestra with very few discrepancies at post-cadenza entries.

Matters hadn’t improved much for the oboes in the post-interval C.P.E. Bach work, a balancing compensation coming from a splendid crispness in the string attack on the work’s stop-start mode of address.  In fact, both groups of violins enjoyed the curt flamboyance of this work’s first movement which played itself along with minimal direction, although Dyer leaped up for an attention-grabbing gesture about 9 bars before the brief (26 bars) middle Largo began.  This hiatus gave fine exposure to the matched timbres of first flute Melissa Farrow doubling Monique O’Dea’s lead viola, and second flute Mikaela Oberg in partnership with principal cellist Jamie Hey.

The concluding Presto also almost plays itself, with only two fermata points to stem the flow, both controlled with fair success by concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen.  As with the concerto, this finale impressed as the work’s most convincing segment – for its innate energy, yes, but also for the interest generated by the performers’ approach to dynamics and the score’s appealing restlessness.

The Ravel Pavane begins with a horn solo – not hard to negotiate but uneven when performed on a period instrument using crooks.  Apart from this oddity, the reading sounded very much like that you might hear from any other chamber orchestra, although I can’t recall any clarinets.  You could have welcomed some more strings to give this placid piece some contrasting vitality in the middle G minor pages.  The fade-to-black at the end struck me as gauche, an unnecessary pictorialization of the dead infanta’s state of being (or non-being).

Enter de Maistre with his solo bracket.  He began with the Spanish Dance from Falla’s La vida breve (1904-5) which was brightened up with a clutch of passing glissandi and generally managed to transfer the infectious rhythmic contrasts of the orchestral original.  A guitar classic, Tarrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra (1896), produced the most intriguing music of the night from this artist with some feather-light tremolo work and a dangerously soft dynamic in some passages that had you holding your breath in admiration.

You could find much pleasure in sections of the Smetana tone poem (composed in 1874); in fact, the opening trickling up to the main theme’s initial exhaustion was very deftly handled.  De Maistre spiced up the score with some cadenza-like flurries and gave us a fine line in harmonics in the A flat nocturne at the work’s centre.  Still, you missed the excitement of the St. John’s Rapids section where the orchestra frets and fumes with gusto, while the glorious Vysehrad appearance near the work’s end was necessarily under-powered.  For all that, this was an impressive demonstration of technical skill and informed responsiveness to a marvellous sequence of musical depictions of landscape, made all the more remarkable when you have a look at the original’s wafer-thin harp part.

 

 

 

 

So much talent and promise

THOMAS TALLIS’ ENGLAND

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday February 24 and Sunday February 25

                                                                           Max Riebl

For some of the time, this concert did give us an idea of the musical world during the time of Thomas Tallis; it contained some works by Tallis himself – three of them – and one motet by his much younger friend and business associate, William Byrd.  But then the chronology went off the anticipated schedule.  Paul Dyer and his orchestra-plus-choir sang and played a bracket of madrigals and motets by Orlando Gibbons; nothing wrong with that and some of it proved pleasurable – but this isn’t much to do with Tallis.

Things hardly improved with the interpolation of a few scraps by Purcell, born over 75 years after the death of Tallis.  A similar bracket followed by Handel,  born a full century after Tallis had shuffled off his mortal coil.  A strange byway came with a piece from Matthew Locke, giving a sort of temporal link between Byrd and Purcell but written in a language some streets removed from the program’s nominated focus.  Oddest of all, the concert’s conclusion came in Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis which is a fine sample of the composer’s art but belongs pretty firmly to the Edwardian era of pre-World War I rustic polyphonic placidity and, despite its use of a Tallis tune, is in no way representative of the Tudor master’s England.

In other words, the content presented on this night was a hodgepodge, compiled with little sense of congruity of content and, whichever way you looked at it, remarkably bitty and insubstantial, as though the organizers were in a hurry to move from one thing to another, not sure of the audience’s attention span.  This trust in pace as a spur to involvement reached its apogee in the Vaughan Williams score where the direction Poco a poco animando brought about a driving urgency that barely slowed down for the climactic Largamente which misfired because of the preceding frenzied build-up.  It delighted the Brandenburgers’ Melbourne fans with its rhetorical passion but it left me unhappy because of its violence, the familiar rolling periods of euphony absent or distorted under this pummeling address.

Not that the ABO strings – expanded for this finale – were working under ideal conditions.  The acoustic properties of the Recital Centre’s Murdoch Hall are not flattering for this meditative  –  or, better, ruminative –  construct and the prevailing mode of delivery without vibrato from most of the players I could see meant that the composition was deficient in weight of timbre, so the musicians compensated for an absence of depth and full-bodied richness of texture with an attack style that eventually bordered on hysteria.  A shame as the opening statements, central quartet fantasy pages and concluding violin/viola duet could not be faulted as well-honed interpretative oases, mobile but measured and valid responses to the composer’s intentions.

Mind you, Dyer had warned us of what was in store: probably the first performance (ever? in Australia?) of this work on period instruments.  And each member of the enlarged orchestra was identified as ‘period violin’, ‘period cello’, and so on.  Was it worth the attempt?  I would say no, apart from the exceptional passages noted above.

Countertenor Max Riebl sang two arias – Purcell’s Song of the Cold Genius from King Arthur, appropriated from the original bass register for unknown reasons – and one of the hero’s arias from Handel’s Orlando, Fammi combattere.  Both have become showpieces for this voice type over the past decade or two and Riebl has them under control, although he gave a more convincing interpretation of the English song, the Italian aria’s lower register passages sometimes swamped by an ever-enthusiastic Brandenburg corps, although the two episodically reinforcing oboes in the score were mercifully absent.

More pertinent matter came earlier in the alto solo for Gibbons’ Great Lord of Lords, a work that expresses celebration in steady, sombre strophes for which Riebl fronted the ABO Choir in an impressive interpretation, appealing for its underlying power and universally exercised control.  For once, the chief soloist was supported by a highly able alto partner, Timothy Chung, and a character-filled bass voice which I think belonged to Craig Everingham.  Like quite a few solos from this body over the past few seasons, these are not temps of the shrinking-violet quality, place-fillers promoted beyond their capabilities, but fully-produced and trained voices making solid contributions to the complex.

As for the ABO in its own Renaissance/Baroque right, it began with an octet doing its best to imitate a chest of viols in Drop, drop slow tears by Gibbons and the same composer’s The silver swan.  For the Abdelazer extracts – Overture and predictable Rondeau  –  the whole body dug into their lines with loads of vim and a cutting attack, moderated a few minutes later for the first two movements of the Handel Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 7 whereas that particular work’s Hornpipe ending might have been more suitably brisk – or perhaps not, as its syncopated bonhomie would have uncomfortably overshadowed yet another boastful and fraught knightly vaunt or six.

Even though out of historical congruity with Tallis, the Curtain Tune from Locke’s The Tempest incidental music came as a welcome intruder with a robust sound across all four lines, the players and their conductor revelling in the sudden flashes from aggressive scale passages, the repeat giving more time to relish the calm discipline of these two staid and compact pages.

Through the ABO Choir, Byrd made an early appearance, represented solely by his Ave verum corpus which experienced reverent treatment although the pauses were so marked that you might have been forgiven for thinking that the interpretation was based on practices promulgated by the latter-day Scandinavian mystical crowd.  Before and after vere passum, after immolatum and after sanguine, the simple one-beat rests dragged out so long that forward momentum was sacrificed to attention-grabbing and performance-debilitating uncertainty.

I think The silver swan was given three times: first by the viol consort substitutes, then by the singers, and again by the strings, after which the Choir gave its version of Drop, drop slow tears; well negotiated and affecting, but then it’s nothing more taxing than a pretty simply harmonised chorale.  Following the rewarding Great Lord of Lords, the Gibbons bracket concluded with the notorious anthem, Hosanna to the Son of David.   This is a staple for any Anglican church choir with ambition, but musically valid performances are rare; the only one I’ve found totally convincing was at an Ely Cathedral evensong some time in July 1976.  The tendency is to allow the bar-line (so to speak) too much importance, whereas the music should be a piling-up of phrases where, for example,  emphasis on ‘to’ in the first clause should be avoided.

Following the positive impression gained from Drop, drop slow tears, the wrenching If ye love me that began the Tallis sequence gave us one of the night’s shortest works but one of its most affecting.  A gentle spread of harmonic movement and care with the textual emphases made this modest gem one of the more compelling stretches of work we heard from these singers, produced with a lulling smoothness that almost made you ignore the lack of body from the four-strong soprano line.  According to the program, five of these singers were to appear; I could only see a quartet.  Perhaps the missing voice was the body’s muscle soprano; whatever the case, here and in the final choral item, the mix would have gained from extra carrying power in the treble line.

Before the Vaughan Williams, we heard the Tallis theme for the Fantasia, Why fumeth in fight.  To make sure we got the tune fixed in our heads, the singers worked through all four verses of Archbishop Parker’s wordy translation of Psalm 2, Why do the nations.  Again, the tune itself in the sopranos tended to be overpowered by the harmonisation contributions from this body’s enthusiastic male altos and strong tenors.

You left this concert in some confusion; well, I did.  The large string band was hard to fault in responsiveness, discipline of ensemble and articulation, particularly when you consider the lack of leeway given by the body’s spartan mode of address and absence of vibrato-providing screening.  In similar vein, you could find few quibbles with the technical apparatus of the ABO Choir.  Yet the interpretations often underwhelmed when they should have swept us away.  Yes, for ‘us’, read ‘me’ because, despite my reservations, the orchestra was treated to a solid wall of applause at the Fantasia‘s conclusion.

But even that point in proceedings seemed a stagey miscalculation.  As Shaun Lee-Chen’s solo violin soared up that slow F minor arpeggio to a top A flat, the lights started going down, so that the final blazing G Major chord that folds into silence was given through a fade-to-blackout ambience when the whole point of the music’s propulsion has been towards a blazing Hildegardean epiphany rather than a John-of-the-Cross dark night.

Russia all the way

LETTERS FROM TCHAIKOVSKY

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday November 19

                                                         Shane Chen

Bringing its year to a comfortable ending, the MCO finished Sunday afternoon’s offerings with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings.  Nothing wrong with that; it’s a true string orchestra classic with page after page of superb writing for the instruments and graced with an unending flow of surging, full-proportioned melodies.  It’s also a score with which William Hennessy and his forces are comfortable, as evident by their bracing assault on the opening declamation, on the right side of aggressive and refreshingly free of hysteria, the temptation to overkill a feature of less emotionally disciplined music-warriors who try to turn each of the composer’s susceptible scores into escapees from Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers.  Just the same measured assurance recurred when the initial Andante re-appeared at the first movement’s conclusion.

The following Valse also proved to be a model of cutting grace, although the ensemble took its time over some of the pauses, as at bar 33 and later at bar 146.  But the movement left a pleasant taste thanks to the warm propositions put by the body’s viola pair near the shapely conclusion, taking over the proposition/response interplay with the first violins at about bar 210.   Once again at the Elegie, you could become mildly astonished at how much Tchaikovsky could extract from a simple rising scale with a few hooks at the top; despite the excellent reliability of the violins in soft passages, the main memory I carried off from this reading was the solid underpinning offered by the MCO’s small bottom-lines contingent – two cellos and Emma Sullivan’s double bass – near the conclusion where the three instruments persist with a pedal D in throbbing triplets before breaking off to join with the others for the last high harmonics that bring optimism to an often dark, plangent passage of play.

The Serenade‘s finale proved notable for those potent moments where violas and cellos acted in unison, as in the E flat interlude at bar 108 where the violins have pride of place with the segment’s broad theme but the work’s propulsion lies below them, the same effect in the home key at bar 320.  Thanks to the director’s pragmatic approach, this movement sustained its tension without descending into the atmosphere of ‘brutal and wretched jollity’, as Hanslick greeted the Viennese premiere of the composer’s violin concerto.

This concert’s other main Tchaikovsky element came with violinist Shane Chen’s firmly considered outline of Souvenir d’un lieu cher, the original piano part orchestrated for strings by Nicholas Buc, who was occupied over the previous three days directing the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in live-soundtrack versions of the first two Harry Potter films at the Plenary and doing so with admirable expertise.  The Souvenir, in three movements, I’ve not heard live before except for the third of its three movements, Melodie, which made a well-thumbed encore at violin recitals some decades ago.  Chen’s production is full-bodied and well-framed without being encumbered by superfluous biceps and his line in the opening Meditation made its points with a quiet passion, set up in a warm breadth across the first solo bars where most of the notes lie below the E string.

Mind you, Tchaikovsky more than makes up for this sombre opening as the work unfolds with some dazzling pyrotechnics that interpose themselves with brilliant effectiveness, pulling back to a touching sequence of solo violin trills that dominate proceedings about 27 or 28 bars before the end.  The work’s central Scherzo gave Chen plenty of scope for rapid staccato/detached bowing, offset by a glowing rendition of the intervening Con molto espressione in A flat; it’s the least inspired group of pages in the whole score but this violinist gave it an appealing Bruch-like breadth that forced you to ignore its structural shortcomings.

Hennessy and his colleagues began with Arensky’s Variations on a theme of Tchaikovsky, one of the composer’s better-known pieces and giving fine service to the older composer and the four-square tune adopted for treatment.   The MCO made an enjoyable creature of this amiable series of change-ringings, the composer’s inner voices very clear because not smothered by too much violin weight.   Not that Arensky does startling things with his tune and reminiscences and shadings come to mind distractingly often, like the Borodinesque Variation VII and the suggestions of Orthodox chant in the score’s coda.  Yet the composition’s transparency makes for an agreeable listening experience and this proved to be an honest, well-judged outing for a piece of singular charm.

Hennessy filled out his program with arrangements.  Rostislav Dubinsky from the original Borodin String Quartet carried out a string quartet arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album  and the MCO performed seven of these miniatures, written in readily-admitted homage to Schumann.  Little remains in the memory some hours later, particularly as few of the pieces last long enough to do more than make a fleeting impression.  The Morning Prayer brings up comparisons with a Mendelssohn Song Without Words rather than implying a Schumann influence; Dubinsky’s sul ponticello scoring in Baba Yaga is a clever touch; Tchaikovsky’s Polka produced from the expert arranger a deft use of harmonics and in its language is startlingly suggestive of the Strauss family; The Organ-Grinder Sings has Dubinsky creating a brilliant squeeze-box imitation which is hard to divine from the original piano score; and the German Song, one of a series of nationalist miniatures in the collection, is almost a satire, occupying a middle ground between a heavy-footed landler and one of Schubert’s slighter fripperies.

None of this gave the players much of a challenge except in the interpolated effects and even these were more a question of synchronicity than production.   Keith Crellin’s orchestration for strings of the early Three Fantastic Dances by Shostakovich presented more difficult material, not least for the arranger.  The opening March is a stop-start affair but the young composer did maintain an underlying pulse which disappears in this revision, as does the buoyancy of the right-hand flights of fancy at the keyboard’s top.  The players had more success with the tricky – well, more tricksy, as Gollum would say – Polka with its off-hand cleverness.   Cleanly accomplished in the main, you still have to wonder why this triptych – not related in any way to Tchaikovsky, unlike everything else played this afternoon – was included.

 

Refined yet insipid

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment & Rachel Podger

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday November 14 and Saturday November 18

 

 

This democratically operating band has achieved a high reputation in the ranks of period performance if mainly, it seems to me, through the undisguised puffery of British critics and music writers.   Much has been made of the ensemble’s improbable survival, endless self-examination, penchant for various guest directors (albeit ones with top-notch reputations) and catholicity of style.   Not much of this made any difference to Tuesday’s first Melbourne concert from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment which, fronted by guest violinist Podger, performed two symphonies – Haydn’s Lamentatione No. 26 in D minor and J.C. Bach’s G minor Op. 6 No. 6 – and the bookends of Mozart’s violin concerto output: all four compositions written within a decade of each other and coming from a cosy trio of mutually admiring master-writers.

An Australian composer once asked me to make no comparisons between his work and that of other composers whenever I reviewed his work and, although it’s a difficult omission to endure, I’ve tried to keep to it, apart from harmless generalizations that seem unarguable.  The temptation to compare ensembles and orchestras is more difficult to carry out, even on the local scene; performance differences between the Goldner, Flinders and Australian String Quartets are there to be noted, I suppose, but seem to recede in importance when you consider each group’s specific interpretative powers on a particular occasion.

But I couldn’t help thinking of the Australian Chamber Orchestra while listening to the OAE.   The points of difference are clear; Richard Tognetti doesn’t go in for the real period touches, usually because he presents programs more historically diffuse than this one from Tuesday and what’s good for your Bach is not necessarily worth persevering with in your Bartok.   For all their historical exactitude, the British players worked with a kind of diffidence, a temperamental restraint that might have been in operation during the second half of the 18th century – who can tell? – but which resulted in some passages of tedium.  While the ACO takes up every challenge with overt enthusiasm – everything becomes vital, if not confrontational – these Musica Viva guests kept themselves nice, observing a calm style of presentation which often proved admirable if also distancing.

Podger and her supporters were frugal with vibrato, but you’d be unwise to cavil at this practice because it speaks to a lucidity and freshness of texture that you can hardly hope to reach if you let your left hand wobble on the spot at every opportunity.  As a corollary, your intonation has to be spot-on because every note in a sequence takes on a quality tantamount to musical nudity; there is no leeway, no place to hide if you miscalculate. While the Enlightened outlined the Haydn symphony with a discipline of emotional content, you missed decisiveness from the string body, especially the bass elements which throughout the program showed a spread of focus, as though the absence of a conductor’s decisive beat meant that the bottom line could indulge in a bit of a spread.

This lack of bite showed up all the more sharply because the body’s pairs of oboes and horns took on extraordinary prominence, simply as timbre contributors even at obvious moments like bar 58 of the central Adagio where they set the running for the movement’s second half.  In fact, the strings’ delivery during the latter two movements showed more authority than had been obvious in the opening Allegro assai where the occasional intonative crack emerged from the violins.

You never hear the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 1, violinists opting for the melodic eloquence of the final three in the set, more often than not No. 5 which Podger also performed to wind up the night.  To a certain degree, this violinist’s historically obedient use of gut strings only gave her reading an unstressed edge, the violin line primus inter pares; nevertheless, the lack of steel in timbre, coupled with  the sparing vibrato made each deviation evident and small slips emerged even as early as the soloist’s first exposure. More than the preceding symphony, this score made for involving music-making, although I have to admit that interest levels drooped during the three cadenzas.  Also, this was the only part of the night where the horns – well, one of them – dropped a note; when I think of the error-laden experiences endured at the hands of local period instrument players . . .

The Bach symphony produced the program’s most lively engagement in its outer Allegro movements but the central Andante was something of a trial. At two points for strings alone, the players appeared to concentrate on generating a continuously static communal output, situations where the work’s forward motion stopped, as though the participants were putting their trust in the composer’s orchestration colours to generate attention – which is fine when you have actual colours to deal with.

The one unalloyed high-point of the evening came in the Mozart A Major Violin Concerto’s adagio.  Yes, the music itself is some streets ahead of anything else this concert offered, but it also suited the soloist’s mellow sound flavour in the middle of the composer’s eloquent orchestra loaded with refined detail at every corner.  Again, Podger gave vent to her ability to insert substantial cadenzas; I must admit to wishing for something a tad less prolix by the time the rondeau had reached the usual spot for an interpolation; after all, you don’t have to play a cadenza, particularly in this movement which has enough internal interest to keep you on the qui vive.

The forces at work for this concert made an interesting study.  With Podger at first desk for the symphonies, the first violins numbered five, the seconds four; three violas, two cellos and one double-bass completed the group.   As well as the horn and oboe pairs, the bass line boasted Sally Jackson’s bassoon which I was hard pressed to discern anywhere during the program.  Perhaps the lack of drive from the upper strings was due to half their number not appearing on the body’s current playing list.  With the ACO, you get the occasional ring-in but most of the time each face is a very familiar one; the which faces will become more familiar to London audiences when Tognetti and his people take up their position for a three-year term as an International Associate ensemble at the Barbican during the 2018/19 season, bringing novelties like steel strings and, more importantly, biting unanimity of attack and a fusion of intellectual and emotional rigour to the London chamber orchestral scene.

Still, it was certainly entertaining being in attendance – with a highly enthusiastic audience – on this night where the OAE indulged us with some enjoyable pages of refined, delectable doodling.

 

 

 

Early opera, sort of

BITTERSWEET OBSESSIONS

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

November 4-5

                                                                  Karim Sulayman

Paul Dyer and his ABO brought a split personality of a show to Murdoch Hall over the weekend; on one side of interval came stately tragedy, on the other, the closest thing the High Baroque gets to a joke.  You could make a case that the two parts didn’t gel, but you are faced with the same situation on many an orchestral and chamber music program where juxtapositions of unlikely material occur regularly.  But this program succeeded chiefly through the dedication of all involved and the absence of presentation irritations that have marred previous ABO events.

The MRC audience was faced with three scenes, two by Monteverdi and one from Bach. New Zealand soprano Natasha Wilson sang in all three, as did American tenor Karim Sulayman and Danish baritone Jakob Bloch Jespersen.  Local tenor Spencer Darby sang in the opening Lamento della ninfa while actors Melanie Lindenthal and Andrew Sunter took on mute roles in the more substantial works.

Dyer and his instrumentalists – three violins, viola, cello, violone, two recorders, a lirone/viola da gamba. Tommie Andersson’s theorbo/guitar/gallichon set, harp and single percussionist – worked from an open pit on the same level as the front stalls while the usual performers’ working platform became a well-spaced arena for Charlotte Montgomery’s mutable sets: a stylized landscape for the mournful nymph, a large scaffold apparatus for Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and a cafe for Bach’s Coffee Cantata, Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht.

A three-section madrigal, the Lamento is hard to present theatrically because nothing happens.  The four  voices outline the situation of a girl left abandoned by her lover; the lady takes centre-spot for the lament with the males offering subterranean commentary, finally come  a few observations about the power of love to round out a 6-minute piece centred on an inexorable ground-bass.  With a large backdrop of a stylized landscape and some cardboard clumps of bushes, the four singers spread themselves around: fine for Wilson’s penetrating, clear voice, not so hot for the males who needed to be positioned in a solid group, if only as a solid source of complementary colour.

For Il combattimento, most of the emphasis fell on Sulayman’s Narrator who surged through Tasso’s lines with requisite fire and dramatic emphasis – in line with the composer’s directions and his music’s illustrative character.  Every so often, the tenor sacrificed precision of pitch for dramatic delivery, which might have made more sense to more people if the surtitles had translated the entire libretto.  But the single-voice experience didn’t pall, thanks to this singer’s vocal vim and textual assurance.  As in the one other staged performance I’ve sen from the national company, the two paladins remained static figures, their combat acted out at ground level by Lindenthal and Sunter in aikido costumes and equipped with staves.

Dyer’s band showed a vital flexibility in this reading, taking every chance to find and deliver the revolutionary score’s flashes of illustrative colour.  Constantine Costi’s direction had Wilson and Jespersen proceed up the scaffolding, become blindfolded as a substitute for the helmets that disguise identities in the original poem, then deliver their few lines from static postures..  In this non-naturalistic mise-en-scene, armour was nowhere to be found on the nominal protagonists  –  just bland everyday clothes, while Sulayman sported a striking red thobe and the aikido fighters wore their usual white, all-enveloping bandage-uniform.

Costi was understandably sparing with his directorial bolts from the blue but noteworthy were the collapse of  the backdrop for the Lamento to reveal the confronting scaffold set, and the dropping of a long red cloth from the top level when Clorinda is mortally wounded by her lover.  Still, like its predecessor on this program, the work is short – about 20 minutes – and, apart from the absurdity of the story and the instrumentation novelties, the presentation’s chief interest lay in Sulayman’s feat of memory and stage dominance.

Framing the two madrigals, Dyer interspersed some fragments by Monteverdi’s contemporaries.  Andersson opened with Kapsberger’s Toccata arpeggiata, curdled by percussion support that featured a wind machine, the action spreading to the lower strings before a wind-driven transition to the Lamento.  Between the Monteverdi pieces came a Falconieri ciacona of refreshing exuberance but sitting completely at odds with the two tragic stories, and Monteverdi’s own overture to Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria that occupies eight bars and can be (and was) elongated at will.  To round off the night’s first half, Dyer and his players moved immediately from Clorinda’s dying sentence to a Consonanze stravaganti by Trabaci which also took on more timbres than merely its keyboard orginal.

For the program’s second part, we vaulted forward a century to Bach’s cantata, prefaced by the first movement of his Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 with the two recorders and violin solo lines. Nobody wasted any time relishing the counterpoint in this marvellous construct, top billing going to Shaun Lee-Chen’s flight of demi-semiquavers from bar 187 to bar 208; the two recorders were sadly swamped.

There isn’t much to be done with the Coffee Cantata.  It’s just four recitatives with pendant arias, then a final recitative and concluding trio.  The Narrator (Sulayman) introduces the story; father and daughter Sclendrian (Jespersen) and Lieschen (Wilson) share three recitatives, enjoy two arias each; finally, the Narrator folds it all up and all three collaborate for the summation.  As you’d expect, the girl gets to enjoy her obsession – coffee – and the father once again copes with the inevitable.  But the score holds two splendid numbers: the soprano’s lilting last aria, Heute noch; and that last ensemble, Die Katze lasst das Mausen nicht, which is so full of sturdy bonhomie that it makes you forget – almost – the affected and pretentious industry that has grown up around the simple practice of drinking coffee.                        (L to R)     Karima Sulayman, Natasha Wilson, Jakob Bloch Jespersen

Wilson played the spoiled rich girl with convincing flair, her sprightly vocal colour suited to this transparent score.   Jespersen enjoyed his only moments of extended solo work in the night, best exercised in his Madchen, die von Harten sinnen aria where he kept exasperation and self-pity deftly harnessed.  Sulayman occupied himself with the fiddly tasks that typify your born barista – a hard ask, doing nothing for a good stretch of time – but came into his own with a light ringing sound for the concluding trio.

Yes, the company asked you to jump from deep medieval gloom to pre-Enlightenment burlesque across the night but something about Bach’s assurance and innate kindness made the transition come to a softer landing.  Finally, it is hard to speak highly enough of the ABO’s flawless support, although, if pressed, you’d have to single out Melissa Farrow’s delectable flute and its supple ornamentation as a particular delight.

The long and the short

TOWARDS ETERNITY

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Friday September 8


                                                                 Merewyn Bramble

A deftly organized program is a treasure beyond price these days.   Whether or not this latest offering from the MCO was all the work of soloist Genevieve Lacey’s doesn’t matter; whoever put it together had a nice sense of proportion, Friday night’s entertainment constructed in two almost equal halves that reflected each other without too much close mirror-imaging.

Both halves of the evening began in medieval mode – first, with the Leonin/Perotin motet. Viderunt omnes arranged by Lacey for three cellos and double bass; later, a continuation of the species, Notum fecit in an adaptation for four violins.  The latter made for a sobering experience, coming close to the night’s title than the opening gambit which once again gave cause for wonder at how conjunct were popular and religious musics in the 12th century and what a feeble echo comes from the auditoria of Hillsong and its ilk in these latter days.  The experience also rolled back many years of memory to student days when Dr. Percy Jones endeavoured to interest us laggards in the intricacies of organum and conductus – and how little actual knowledge remains.

After the Viderunt omnes, a string quartet of violins William Hennessy and Rachael Beesley, viola Merewyn Bramble and cello Michael Dahlenburg moved without a break into the penultimate movement, O Albion, of Thomas Ades’ Arcadiana which carried through an ultra-restrained pastoralism that might have caused little surprise in 1198 Notre Dame, so subtle was the slide from the motet’s meditative last pages to Ades’ placid sound scape. This in turn gave place to a madrigal, Cipriano da Rore’s Ancor che col partire, with two divisions by Giovanni Bassano – which brought Lacey to the stage playing the top line: a stream of expressiveness in the middle of a non-vibrato (well, very little) string halo, followed by variants with the strings pizzicato, then with mutes.

This made for a sensible trans-generational journey before the night moved on a century to Vivaldi’s Recorder Concerto in C minor, one of the multitude in the composer’s catalogue that I’ve never come across.  By contrast, in the program’s second half,  Lacey presented Sammartini’s F Major Concerto, the writer’s best (only?)-known work.

Balancing the night’s opening, after interval, following the sober Notum fecit, the second stanza of Viderunt omnes merged into Ross Edwards’ Tyalgum Mantras in an arrangement I’ve not come across: solo violins at every corner of the Deakin Edge space, two central cellos, Lacey’s recorder, three violas, a group of four violins – all contributing their individual voices to the Australian composer’s own pastorale that showed a clear debt to Sculthorpe with its sustained pedal notes and shared melismata duties.  This in turn mutated into John Dunstable’s Quam pulchra es arranged for three violas – Bramble, Katie Yap, Matthew Laing – which capped off this second group gambit with remarkable success, thanks to the performers’ sensitively-melded negotiation of the British composer’s clear-speaking polyphony.

The two Baroque recorder concertos gave Lacey another opportunity to remind us of her instrumental and interpretative brilliance.  They don’t look adventurous on paper, but the Vivaldi concerto’s first movement solos challenge any interpreter to smooth out some demanding leaps, keep faith with the underpinning metre through syncopations, and enunciate several demi-semiquaver exposed near-cadenzas.  With Lacey, you sense no performance tension but rather an awareness of the composition’s coherence, thanks in part to the recorder being written in to the outer movements’ tutti passages for both works.   But the efficiency of this soloist emerged best in the three rapid-fire solos of the concluding Sammartini gigue-like Allegro assai, notably the precision of the sequence of trills that punctuate vaulting pairs of semiquavers.  This work presents as more gracious than that of the Venetian master but then it doesn’t travel very far; its simplicity from a galant-style opening is sustained because Sammartini doesn’t travel far from his home-key.  Even the chromatic descents of the middle siciliano fail to lead far from a central A minor/C Major harmonic spindle..  But the solo line is light and buoyant in its movement, Lacey carrying it off with elegant spiritedness.

Hennessy led his forces into interval with Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge.  Unlike the customary take-no-prisoners mode of attack, this reading pleased for its lucid delivery, even in those passages of maximal inner strife.  The two elements that surprised from this experience were the power of the two violas – Bramble and Yap in bracingly concerted voice – and the surprising dearth of interest delivered in the central Meno mosso e moderato where everyone seemed happy enough to observe the pianissimo marking throughout but otherwise did little shading work with this material.   Elsewhere, the musicians coped best with the movement’s broader dynamic passages – the sterner the fugue itself, the more involving this account  –  but some relieving moments misfired, like the soft trills that intervene at Bar 710.

Ending the night, Hennessy and his forces played the Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams: another vision of the eternal to set alongside that of Beethoven’s vision of a divine architect.  This lacked the massive washes of fabric that a full orchestra can generate with its 50 or 60 participants but it came close to being one of the most successful readings I’ve heard of this superb score.  The second orchestra made vivid work of the manual-changing moments, starting four bars before Letter F, despite the presence of only one player at each desk.  Bramble and leader Hennessy gave splendid service in the quartet fantasy at the work’s heart, and later made a joy of the spine-tingling duet a bar after Letter U.  In fact, the only question mark arose at the start of Hennessy’s last solo F minor arpeggio but I wasn’t alert enough to put a name to the specific note.  Still, it hardly mattered in the context of this excellent demonstration of the MCO’s grace under pressure and responsiveness to the director’s insightful preparation.