So much talent and promise


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


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


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


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.


A wealth of soft stillness


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday June 18

                                      Rebecca Chan

An afternoon of nocturnally inspired music curated by guest director Rebecca Chan: that’s what was proposed at the latest MCO subscription series concerts.  With a willing band of young players, Chan took us through some excellent performances in a program that moved across the set theme, the primary intention of which must have been to keep us entertained.  This worked well enough for most of the time, including an excellent second half to the event; the multiple compositional voices proved too strained, however, in the concert’s middle passages.

Chan began by leading a transcription of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for strings alone; an imaginative way to open a concert with this underpinning theme; after all, Act 2 is conducted under cover of darkness.   Of course, you missed the antiphonal interplay between strings and woodwind, as well as the powerful moments of release that come in the original’s full-orchestra chords, but the 13-strong MCO worked up the passion effectively.   This arrangement by Sebastian Gurtler, one-time concertmaster with the Vienna Volksoper Orchestra, didn’t fade as expected into silence for the curtain-rise to Act 1 but worked its way into a postlude: the latter stages of the Liebestod that ends the opera.  A bit of a cheat, even if it leaves the audience’s inner tensions resolved.

Tenor Andrew Goodwin opened his contribution to the field of nightscapes with Strauss’s Die Nacht, from the 8 Gedichte aus ‘Letzte Blatter’, the composer’s Op. 10 and first published lieder.  The arrangement for strings was unattributed but suitably supple, Goodwin exercising his telling clarity of articulation, at its most moving in the final stanza’s Rucke naher, Seel an Seele.  Speaking of early songs, Schoenberg’s Waldesnacht, arranged for strings by Chan, followed; this, along with the concert’s final work, Verklarte Nacht, gave the unwary a one-sided picture of the composer as a thorough-going Romantic – which, at this stage of his career, he was.  This song comes from Schoenberg’s early 20s and, despite its chromatic side-slips, gave Goodwin no problems, although every so often the string action distracted attention from the vocal line.

Finishing this group was Schubert’s Der Erlkonig in a version by Gregor Huber which exercised the violins, just as the original gives a workout to the pianist’s right hand.  In this format, much of the song’s gruffness is dissipated but Goodwin managed the three voices inside the lied with aplomb, especially the persuasive, then threatening lines from the Erlking himself  – treated without bombast so that the hurtling drama of the narrative came across as a sustained crescendo, rather than a series of jolts.  You missed the piano’s compelling clatter but the ever-startling vehemence of the 18-year-old composer’s vision came across unimpeded.

Chan arranged the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music, spreading the work-load around to make up for the absent woodwind piquancies. It made for a mildly entertaining experience, pretty well negotiated by the MCO band, but eventually unsatisfying; very much a second-best, if you know the original.  For a complete change from Mendelssohn’s suggestions of Puck and Co. cavorting in the Athenian wood, Chan moved us to Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet, specifically the middle ‘night music’ Non troppo lento movement which worked more credibly, principally because the forces involved were relevant and credible.  Even so, it might have been wiser to play the piece as written without a Tognetti-style amplification, although it spiced matters up quite a bit to see both cellists sharing the honours in outlining their part’s elastic solos.  But the central Agitato segment with all the insect noises loses a good amount of its spark when being negotiated by a corps rather than an individual.

Written for the MCO, Lachlan Skipworth’s Rilke setting, The Expanse, found a persuasive exponent in Goodwin.  The lyric, Am Rande der Nacht, enjoys a calmly restrained handling, the composer constructing a darkly-coloured string backdrop for a mendicant vocal line well suited to the poet’s effete self-description.  Coupled with this was Schubert’s Nacht und Traume, another Chan arrangement, this time giving Goodwin the opportunity to demonstrate his talent for manufacturing a splendidly sustained slow-moving vocal arc in a song that consists of little more than an emotional stasis, albeit a deeply moving one..

Before the Schoenberg string orchestra version of his own sextet, Goodwin ended his night journeys with two more Chan-arranged Schubert lieder: Nachtstuck, which depicts an old man’s progress through a consoling landscape to his death, and the first song from the song-cycle Die Winterreise where the disappointed lover sets out on his journey towards inconsolable grief.   In the first, attention oscillated between the deftness of the transcription and Goodwin’s warmth of tone in the valedictory last two stanzas; but in the reading of Gute Nacht, all the honours went to the tenor for an interpretation of high quality, the four-square phrases announced with assertiveness and  a subtle shifting of emphasis that was probably as much part of the performer’s musicality as it was built-in by Schubert.

Even after almost 120 years, Verklarte Nacht is still a taxing challenge for its executants.  Nothing about it comes easily, not even the slow threnody of the first pages.  When the polyphonic meshing kicks off and the modulations pour in on top of each other, the players can’t afford to relax or take their eyes off their own work or off that of their fellow labourers.  Chan and her charges gave a pretty solid account of this score which avoided quite a few of the expected deficiencies.  In fact, only one occasion raised eyebrows  – at about bar 246 in the lead-up to the first ‘transfiguration’ section where the lower strings sounded disorganized and uncertain in their triplets’ timing.  An unexpected moment came about when second violin Peter Clark appeared to change his focus by helping out Tom Higham with his viola line for a stretch before returning to his regular duties.  By this stage of the concert, I was sitting at the back of the Murdoch Hall but, even from that distance, I don’t think I was suffering from delusions.

Chan kept the score on the move, well aware that the point of the work is a journey, not a series of stops and starts.  The players gave full measure to the thick welters of sound that make up the central, confessional part of the work, but the forward movement stayed on track, even if some of the sudden harmonic shifts had little time to breathe.  Still, the work made a neat balance to the opening Wagner, a score that set the bench-mark for chromatic Schoenbergian constructs.   In all, a worthwhile dark odyssey, despite a few mis-steps along the way.


Bully for us


Brandenburg Chamber Orchestra and CIRCA

Melbourne Recital Centre

May 13-14


I’m sorry but, try as hard as I may to wish it were otherwise, the musical content in these collaborations often goes through to the back of the net.  After three exposures to Circa, I thought I’d seen all their manoeuvres and manipulations; this last experience shows that, even when working with the tried-and-true, this troupe can often strike out in unexpected directions.  Added to which, the off-the-cuff showmanship and near-flawless expertise on display tends to swamp out the Brandenburg offering which often became, to be kind, something close to aural wallpaper.

Paul Dyer and his small band of players began with an Entrada dinamica y ruidosa, put together by the man himself.   It was certainly noisy enough, being mainly for percussion and reminiscent of the sound onslaught generated by Les Ballets Africains of many years ago.   A canarios by Santiago de Murcia followed in an arrangement by Dyer and film-music writer Alex Palmer, which I seem to recall backed a rather impressive series of tall totem-poles and pyramid shapes  constructed from themselves by the eight Circa members.

Two women from the troupe then played balancing games on a long seesaw construct while soprano Natasha Wilson sang a Tarquinio Merula aria, Su la cetra amorosa – negotiated well enough although the singer’s range of vocal colours is not large and I think she underestimated the force of her accompaniment.   A Murcia fandango followed, arranged by Palmer and Stefano Maiorana, guest guitarist with the ABO for this program; lively and fiercely rhythmic, it was overshadowed by one of the Circa men twisting himself round a vertical pole, finishing off his routine with a heart-stopping vertical drop – the sort of accomplishment that threw the musical action well into the background, sad to say.

An organ solo from Dyer that sounded like a scrap from the Bologna school followed before Wilson contributed an anonymous cancion, Muerto estais, in an adaptation by Dyer, Palmer, and the renowned Argentinian-born lutenist Eduardo Eguez.  This proved most interesting because of the singer’s restrained address and the fore-fronting of Tommie Andersson’s theorbo (amplified?), while the acrobats performed four pas de deux, interweaving and exchanging places in an engrossing display of inter-dependence.

Suddenly, we left the Spanish Baroque for the familiar Spanish Modern when Maiorana broke into Albeniz’s Leyenda, arranged by Palmer for the rest of the ensemble to join in but a touch demanding for the baroque instrument that the main executant was using; the version moved beyond the original’s simplicity of texture, naturally enough, with various accretions and excisions while a female acrobat climbed up a cluster of white ropes in an enthusiastic if not over-original solo.

Wilson sang Con que la lavare, better known to most of us as one of Rodrigo’s Cuatro madrigales amatorios; the earlier version sung here by Luis de Narvaez is a more languorous construct, even in this arrangement by Sydney-based composer Tristan Coelho.  As things turned out, the singer gave some of her best work in this piece, supporting seven of the Circa players before the rope-specialist from the preceding turn came on for an ensemble displaying sheer muscular control.   Vivaldi’s version of La folia, that simple theme subjected to so many variation-sequences across the centuries, is inevitably more light-filled than most, handled here with plenty of free-wheeling abandon by the Brandenburg strings (what there were of them), while a female trapeze artist dealt handsomely with the four Circa men who tried to disrupt her routine.

Palmer’s arrangement of the traditional Catalan song La mare de Deu, another Palmer arrangement, also gave Wilson fine exposure as her visual competition was a solitary female carrying out a sequence of hand stands on three slender-looking pillars – again, simple craft without fireworks but somehow matching the quiet tension of the musical content.   Back came the men with a table for plenty of diving across and under with a scattering of near-misses to the backdrop of an anonymous villancico, Rodrigo Martinez, reshaped by Dyer and Palmer.   This pre-Baroque melody is fairly familiar – Jordi Savall has treated it and it turns up in all sorts of formats from other ensembles – but, once you’ve played it, there’s not much else to do except elaborate it; yes, you could say the same about a wealth of material on this program.   Eventually, of course, the whole Circa corps joined in this perfectly-judged and -calculated frolic.

Another Catalan song, La dama d’Arago, enjoyed the Palmer treatment,  Wilson again given a considerate Brandenburg accompaniment while a female acrobat re-visited a Circa regular in manipulating herself up two cloth ribands, although she avoided that extraordinary move where the performer wraps the cloth around her, then lets herself fall floor-wards, spinning all the while; yes, the child in me (never far from the surface) missed it.

A  jacara by Murcia put the spotlight again on Maiorana who revelled in the slashing rasgueado chords in this version constructed by himself and Palmer, while a wheelbarrow provided a bull-representation for the Circa’s turn as matadors – Spanish, I suppose, but not over-entertaining.   The finale came in an improvisation called Passacaglia Andaluz, notable for yet more apparently off-hand body-throwing and a sense of predictability from the musicians, their creativity well-harnessed to a set pattern – naturally enough, given this traditional format, but we could have done with more linear and vertical extravagance.

Look, it was most entertaining; my grand-daughter loved it from start to finish, the whole experience bringing out her latent Nadia Comaneci.  But, like quite a few in the packed Murdoch Hall, she was barely aware of the Brandenburg players.  Which may have been the musicians’ intention – not to distract from their guests.   But I think that the collaboration has reached its use-by date and could well be rested for a few years. Their first appearance together in 2015 proved extraordinarily exciting, exhilarating even to these well-worn eyes and ears; Circa alone at the Playhouse for a Carnival of the Animals production reinforced impressions of the company’s prowess; this Spanish night entertained but, when all’s said and done,  the prevailing ethos at work is physical.  Until the two bodies can mesh more with each other with both bodies inside each other’s space for extended periods rather than a few slight juxtapositions, the gymnasts will enjoy the limelight and the formidable Brandenburgers might just as well be sitting in an orchestral pit.


Bit of this, bit of that


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Sunday May 7


                                      Satu Vanska

You may be from an old school, so you tend to look for themes, thematic links, but sometimes the search is futile.  Take this latest program from the country’s premier chamber orchestra.  The ensemble opened with a scrap of semi-modern Americana and ended with yet another string quartet arrangement, this time of Mendelssohn No. 2 in A minor.  At the core of the afternoon came two Baroque violin concertos – Vivaldi for two violins and cello, RV 578; and Locatelli in D Major, the Harmonic Labyrinth which is really nothing of the kind – an arrangement of Debussy’s Cello Sonata which became a new piece in the process, and a fresh work by Perth-based composer James Ledger, The Natural Order of Things.

A mixed bag, then, but not unpalatably so.  Under temporary director Satu Vanska, the ACO gave an airing to Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante for Strings, an arrangement by the composer of the slow movement from her own String Quartet of 1931.  In the concert program, an appreciation of this movement came from critic Peter Dickinson, who described Crawford Seeger’s work as that of ‘a kind of American Webern’.  The assessment seems to have been based on the composer’s practice in this movement of quick crescendos so that the melodic element moves between the parts.   Cute but, even given the composer’s somewhat acerbic language, it falls a fair way short of the Viennese master’s Klangfarbenmelodie, which is what Dickinson is attempting to persuade us that the American innovator was attempting.

The Andante is pretty brief, but you wouldn’t want it more prolix, chiefly because the surges and recessions can’t hope to capture as much interest as that constant flickering of textures and gruppetti in Webern’s setting of the Ricercar a 6 from Bach’s Musical Offering, or, to be fairer, his master Schoenberg’s famous Farben movement in the Five Pieces for Orchestra.  The American work is quaint, a moderately interesting experiment but – and there’s nothing macho-sexist about this – the piece is bland in character when juxtaposed with Ives’ scores dating from previous decades.

More contemporary still, Ledger’s work was being given its second performance on Sunday, after an out-of-town reading in Wollongong.   The work celebrates the life of Simon Libling, an escapee from the Plaszow Concentration Camp in Poland (associated in my mind with the efforts of Oskar Schindler)  who eventually migrated to Melbourne in 1960.   Ledger was commissioned by Libling’s son and daughter-in-law and has produced a five-movement work that offers a kind of odyssey. pictures marking certain stages in Libling’s life.   Ledger employs an accessible vocabulary, reaching its most aggressive reaches in the central Threatening and agitated section.  But he doesn’t overtax his audience in any of the movements, each segment having its own discernible character and dynamic impetus.  If anything, Ledger is determined to construct his five life-chapters without frills and sustains the atmosphere for just long enough.  Above all, it’s a music without self-consciousness, the composer’s voice present but channeled into the work’s narrative, not drawing attention to itself with sound-production tricks.

Satu Vanska and ACO regular Glenn Christensen worked pretty well as top lines in the Vivaldi concerto, principal Timo-Veikko Valve the sublimated cello.  You were hard pressed to find flaws in the soloists’ attack, although I would have preferred the violinists to work alongside each other, rather than facing from opposite sides of the stage.  The opening spiccato sounded less fierce and abrupt than when Richard Tognetti is at the first desk but, even for a L’estro armonico stalwart, this piece is forgettable.

Vanska took the solo Locatelli part and negotiated its endless stream of semiquavers with very few misses.  Most of the score’s interest comes in the solo capriccios/cadenzas of the outer movements, and Vanska gave bracing accounts of both.   But the work is over-hyped: it’s not complicated in any sense – it’s just busy.  For instance, the solo that interrupts the first Allegro is little more than a series of arpeggios in D Major and its close associates; playing them rapidly generates excitement but it strikes me as being little more than an eighteenth century precursor of Czerny.   Vanska gave considerable personality to the middle movement’s substantial melodic lines but raised the audience’s temperature with the long capriccio in the finale, packed with double-stops and flights across the instrument’s compass, including Locatelli’s favourite trick of asking for notes above the fingerboard.  In the end, the player displayed a formidable technique; pity about the repetitive content, but that’s the period.

At this work’s start, a baroque guitar crept in behind cellists Valve and Melissa Bernard; it took me a fair while to realize that this was the third of the ACO’s regular players – Julian Thompson – revealing an unheralded talent.  Speaking of personnel, the scheduled viola Alexandru-Mihai Bota didn’t seem to be present behind guest principal Jasmine Beams and Nicole Divall, unless he has altered radically in height and complexion.

It was hard to warm to the Debussy Cello Sonata, although Valve made an excellent solo voice surrounded by a small group of piano-substituting strings.  You missed the keyboard’s bite and percussive force, of course; even stranger was the lack of contrast in this version, the cello merging into a bland cocoon of fellow strings.  The pay-off was that the string instrument remained prominent, unchallenged in that regard by its accompaniment.  Every pizzicato from Valve told and the calculated immersion of the string instrument’s activity in the piano’s occasionally vehement attack didn’t occur.  In this form, the piece is a radically different entity and you find that you’re pulling yourself up short when an anticipated harmonic clash is muted almost into non-existence.

The ACO is renowned for its adaptation of string quartets from the mainstream repertoire as expansions of its programs.  Alongside understandable fleshings-out of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, the ensemble has recorded and/or performed quartets (and the occasional quintet) by Grieg, Janacek, Schubert, Beethoven, Szymanowski and Haas.  Now Mendelssohn’s most accessible work in the form has enjoyed the string orchestra treatment  (whose arrangement it is, I don’t know).   The work is big-statement-rich in its outer movements and so stands up well to dynamic and timbral aggrandisement in its bookends; added to which, the musicians are responsive to Mendelssohn’s shapely counterpoint, each line melding into its peers with the group’s inimitable mix of urging power and elegant finish.

As with other similar arrangements that the organization has presented, you experience the odd moment of dislocation, when the forces reduce themselves and the texture thins to regular quartet individuality, as in the Andante con lento, or at Vanska’s solo towards the final Adagio‘s conclusion; so that, when the full complement of players comes back on board, reinforced by Maxime Bibeau’s bass, you have to make a jump back to accepting the larger sound as the norm.  They’re not as impressive in construction as this Beethoven homage, but I’d be more interested in hearing some of the composer’s early symphonies for strings than these re-writes.

Nevertheless, Sunday’s patrons were quite happy with the ACO’s work, even if one lady behind me commented unfavourably about Ledger’s piece.  You can’t please everyone all the time – which is the best rationale for a bitzer of a program like this one.





Smooth if occasionally heavy


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday March 5 at 2:30 pm


  Li-Wei Qin

In a program for the MCO’s true believers, Sunday afternoon’s concert didn’t have much rococo about it, strictly speaking.  Popular cellist Li-Wei Qin fronted the Tchaikovsky Variations on a Rococo Theme but it’s a stretch to call the tune itself anything but a Classical/Romantic fusion.  The rest of the afternoon featured Mozart’s Idomeneo Overture with its pendant Chaconne and Pas seul de Mr le Grand, the Haydn G Major Symphony No. 88 and C.P.E. Bach’s A Major Cello Concerto Wq 172 which came closest to the rococo classification but sits some decades outside it temporally and at least a generation past it intellectually.

Michael Dahlenburg conducted three of these works, leaving the Bach concerto’s direction in the experienced hands of leader William Hennessy, the orchestra’s presiding eminence.. With the Idomeneo bracket, the main impression was of jubilation, the score representing a celebration of the organization’s start to another year’s work.  For a pretty straightforward work, you had to hand it to Dahlenburg: he showed a confident awareness of the spacious sound he wanted and he cued impeccably – nothing unnecessary or over-pointed.  His forces responded with plenty of zeal and an invigorating bounce from the strings; the only flaw I heard was a muffed horn note in about bar 44 of the Pas seul.  But the reading proved excellent, well calculated to open an opera seria distinctive for its polish and subtle melodic content.

Li-Wei gave an object lesson while performing Emanuel Bach’s benign concerto with its agreable angularity of line and sudden harmonic jolts.  In front of only 14 strings, the soloist had no difficulty in projecting  a resonant timbre throughout, the only strident note emerging in the middle of the first movement’s development with an over-emphatic conclusion to a hectic passage featuring a plethora of semiquavers; relief to get there unscathed, I suppose.

In the program, this work’s second movement was billed as Largo maestoso.  Well, that’s half-right – it’s a largo but mesto, and con sordini.  Despite its misnaming, the performance proved admirable in shape and steady progress.  Later, the finale came over with infectious vigour, a real bite to the violins’ triple and quadruple stops with all concerned applying just enough tension to the composer’s sudden halts in the action.

For the Haydn symphony, Dahlenburg returned and led a remarkably clean operation, with few glitches from the brass quartet and a fine amplitude of colour in the opening Adagio.  I found the accents and/or sforzandi too heavy in the Menuetto, even more so in the Allegretto/Trio. And, while you could hear every note sound clearly in the final Allegro, a continuation of the sparkling opening bars would have been more exhilarating than the rhythmic variations and heftiness that took over before the movement was far advanced.

The Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations is one of the repertoire’s gems, without a doubt, but you’re lucky to strike a reading that satisfies; too often, the sense of effort is almost palpable and most executants over-strain at their work when a simple delineation of the notes would serve the composer much better.  I last head Li-Wei perform this some years ago – with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, I think – and that reading proved a trial because the soloist seemed uncomfortable in his work.  This time around, the outcome was much more convincing, in some part due to the (obvious) chamber quality of the fabric where the wind choir, especially in their recurring post-variation commentary, were very exposed.

Li-Wei offered a lucid view of the solo line, happy to reserve his warmest colour for the Variation III Andante sostenuto which he lavished with an all-embracing vibrato and a disciplined rubato both here and in the minore Andante Variation VI, still having plenty of powder dry for the preceding cadenza.  A wonky harmonic aside, this was a top-notch interpretation, full of the milk of Tchaikovsky’s kindness yet capable of brisk drive and a confident despatch of the technical fireworks. During the later stages, the clarinet duo dominated the woodwind choir on occasions, their support drowning out the more melodically important matter carried by oboes and flutes.  But, more importantly, Dahlenburg exerted a flexibility of phrase-shaping in most parts of the score that did justice to this amiable music.





Oratorio as barely-disguised opera


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre Saturday February 25 and Sunday February 26


  Lucia Martin-Carton

That heading is saying nothing new.  The rationale behind oratorios was that they served as opera substitutes in 17th century Italy when the Church got sniffy about theatrical productions in Lent and Holy Week, apparently wanting the season’s drama to be altar-centric rather than having attention stolen by vocally florid musicians.   While the borderline between the two forms has become fuzzy, especially in an oratorio that follows a narrative, a work like Handel’s Messiah doesn’t attract theatrical treatment.  It doesn’t tell a story but jumps all over the Bible; the emotional world depicted is fitfully operatic, although gifted performers can refute that observation; performance tradition falls heavily on the side of Victorian decorum; after the monster 19th century versions with massive choirs and orchestras, the 20th century reaction has reverted to the original bare-bones score and the employment of slender resources with a preference for period instruments and all the concomitant problems of dynamic restraint and accuracy of articulation.

Paul Dyer and staging director Constantine Costi, in the latest ABO series concerts, are mounting the oratorio as a series of set scenes; the remarkable achievement is that they’ve carried this out with a minimal number of misfires and, at several points, the interpretation achieves an irresistible force, exciting to experience and a successful mirror of the composer’s inbuilt drama.   Dyer is fortunate, as usual, in his band which, as far as I could hear, worked through the score with  determination and accuracy, only a few passages in danger of lagging because the conductor insisted on lurching between his harpsichord continuo position, a podium, and front of stage to encourage a perfectly competent Australian Brandenburg Choir.

On which point, this was a night for the singers.   While the ABO players – 25 in number at full strength – negotiated this not-over-difficult score with aplomb, responding to their conductor’s idiosyncratic dynamic vaults and linear foregrounding, the choir (and soloists, of course) operated in front of them.   The trumpet solo for Part the Third’s great bass aria enjoyed sprightly treatment from Leanne Sullivan, the few uncertain notes barely noticeable alongside singer David Greco’s fierce approach.  Only some percussion effects raised question marks: a gratuitous suspended cymbal  making a strange commentary somewhere in this night’s Scene 3, and a timpani line in Why do the nations that I’ve never heard before.  And I’m still puzzled as to why concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen had to stand in front of the orchestra to lead How beautiful are the feet.

At the start, what struck you about the singers was the prominence of the altos; all males, their pushing power in And the glory of the Lord dominated the texture, right from their initial statement on.   Mind you, that often served as a revelation: all too often, you strain to hear what that particular line is doing.   For much of the time, the singers used music, but this segment was sung from memory, as were a few other key choruses, including a jubilant Hallelujah with the participants stretched across the stage front.  What impressed even more was the absence of passengers; every one of the 28 singers knew his/her responsibilities and worked through the chord sequences and quick-fire fugato passages with full commitment.   Dyer also calculated what forces he needed, keeping certain choristers silent in some lighter-textured, faster-moving pages.  But the body’s security and inbuilt brio was the major contributor to this night’s success, its changes of position and grouping keeping the balance of sonorities a moveable feast.

All four soloists are young and were encouraged to blaze through their arias and recitatives.  Tenor Kyle Bielfield set the oratorio moving with a vigorous Ev’ry valley that had its fair share of fioriture and an octave displacement for a particular low note that didn’t suit his powers of projection.  The interpretation was far from the pallid run-through we usually encounter, Bielfield determined to dominate the prevailing sound scape and infuse his work with interest.  Later, his Thy rebuke/Behold and see sequence proved much more persuasive, even if the singer transferred some of his pop music practices by inserting breaths at phrase-breaking points.

Greco made a benign impression with his Thus saith the Lord, keeping his semiquaver chains in time and projecting with vehemence across his range.  Unlike most of his colleagues, he kept any interpolated decorations reasonable, conserving his energy in For behold darkness/The people that walked in darkness, then breaking out and treating Why do the nations as a Rage aria – powerful, blazing with temperament but you wondered how long he could sustain his force.  A lordly breadth informed The trumpet shall sound and served as a cogent lead-in to the final two glorious choruses.

It was hard not to admire countertenor Nicholas Spanos right from the start for a shapely reading of But who may abide and a little later on a careful negotiation of the bouncy O thou that tellest.  His upper reaches are penetrating, not too hoot-filled, and he has no qualms about changing register for the lower passages in Handel’s probing alto solos.  He showed uncommon taste in the tense spaciousness of He was despised with its wrenching silences and he found just the right element of calm suppleness for the first half of He shall feed his flock.

Soprano Lucia Martin-Carton made her mark here when she sang with William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants as part of Le Jardin des Voix nearly two years ago in this hall, one of 2015’s most memorable nights of music-making.  On this night, with Handel’s arias she showed again a piercing clarity and ideally-centred pitch through the Nativity sequence where, for once, the series of consecutive recitatives rushed past.  Martin-Carton’s English has its oddities of pronunciation and she alone of the soloists had to use a score  –  for I know that my Redeemer liveth.  Yet her work proved gripping to watch and hear, especially in her version of Rejoice greatly where she seemed to channel temperamentally a variety of heroines – Aida, Thais, Delilah, Salome.  In a quasi-staged Messiah, this singer stood out for her realization of its drama, her biting clarity juxtaposed with a caressing lilt.

Some tableaux succeeded very well.  Spanos brought on a red scarf for the Crucifixion pages, using it to blind Bielfield as representing this section’s Christ-as-Victim focus.  Other stage work left me cold, including the use of dry ice and an unfathomable lighting grid.  But the presentation had an admirable fluency in its entrances and exits for the singers and the final Worthy is the Lamb/Amen choruses with the soloists taking part instead of sitting immobile and impassive proved majestic – when are they not? – but also moving: an all-in-together generosity resulting in a splendid sound that almost compensated for the omission of several parts of the score.

Dyer and Costi reshaped the oratorio into four segments: Darkness to Light, which ends at the For unto us a child is born chorus; The Dream, concluding at He shall feed his flock; after interval, Shame and Mourning, culminating in How beautiful are the feet; and Ecstatic Light which started with Why do the nations.  It’s a deft thematic organization, in certain ways more satisfying than the original tripartite construct.  But I missed the jog-trot of His yoke is easy, the buoyant agility of Lift up your heads, the vehemence of Thou shalt break them, and – yet again – that neglected and solitary duet, O death, where is thy sting?

Regrets to one side, Dyer and the ABO achieved their aim in giving life and a refreshing vigour to this venerable masterwork that has degenerated in status to a seasonal inevitability.   For those of us who experience Messiah as a duty or as an annual musical labour, this night re-awakened interest without torquing the score, making it serve as an excuse for interpretative excess.   The concert also served to remind us how much a man of theatre the composer was; bearing that in mind,  I doubt if anyone could accomplish the same results with the St. Matthew Passion.  Yet, in this world where the impossible and improbable have become commonplace, it has probably been done already.