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.



Children dear, was it yesterday . . . ?


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Saturday January 28



                 Brett Kelly

Not quite yesterday – in fact, almost a year ago.  But the time has flown since the last Cybec Foundation concert in which four young composers heard their original creation performed by competent professionals.   On Saturday, the process was repeated involving another quartet of fresh-faced enthusiastic creators introducing their scores with the by-now anticipated mixture of diffidence and brashness, information and burbling, jargon and deliberation – all set in motion by interviewer/conductor Brett Kelly who gave the composers a forum to engage with us verbally, then through their music.

As with last year’s field, this crop proved a mixed one.  But that’s not saying much: from my experience, the Cybec events offer markedly differing tongues, even if the conversationalists are constrained to operate with the same array of sound-colours.   This year, the available forces numbered 25 players – one each of the woodwind except for two clarinets, pairs of trumpets and horns with a trombone and tuba, pairs of strings with a solitary double bass, piano, harp and three percussion.  And each participant enjoyed the services of a mentor to help shape the work;  not that this assistance was at all obvious as the young composers all displayed an idiosyncratic voice, if their mastery of form presented as veering to the rudimentary.

Saturday night began with Sydney-based Cassie To’s The Reef, a series of sound pictures dealing with this country’s marine wonder and celebrating its current breadth and vitality with a lavishness that would have admirably supported an Attenborough wild-life special. The piece’s progress presented as a set of contrasting episodes, polemical brass-dominated passages set alongside smaller-framed paragraphs like the harp+flute+strings passage at the work’s conclusion that brought the first of the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes Sea to mind.  Still, originality in the score’s harmonic structure proved difficult to find with an emphasis on diatonic straightforwardness amounting to insistence and, although flourishes and intimations of nature’s majesty abounded, individual touches in orchestration came around pretty infrequently.  As a homage to the Great Barrier Reef, the work made the proper gestures and succeeded in suggesting the current structure’s majesty of scale as a whole alongside its fragility   A pity To couldn’t confront us with a canvas projecting the mental bankruptcy of those who sponsor the Adani development which currently menaces the treasure that she has memorialised.

After this, Stephen de Filippo’s Static Anxiety moved into a different form of representation, psychological rather than geographical.   The proposed stasis is represented by a sustained note that shifts between instruments and methods of articulation across the score’s span – an A, possibly?   On top of this fulcrum, the Western Australian composer involves his players in tachisme, dollops of sound coming from all quarters in an instrumental web of considerable sophistication that demonstrates de Fliippo’s consciousness of the value and worth of each strand in the overall complex.  This is music that is not so much up-to-date but of its time, packed with energy; very few young writers would be capable of depicting in such a sustained fashion the title’s intimations of mental fragility and nervousness operating above a sanity-inspiring ground.

Alongside this chameleonic continuum, Brisbane-based Connor D’Netto’s Singular Movement impressed for its inbuilt firmness of statement.   The composer is comfortable in employing recognizable melodies that amplify themselves by slow accretion.  This work’s central section involves a deft rhythmic moto perpetuo, first for strings, then for a wind/brass combination while a long, slow-moving arch emerges from the bass layers of the sonic mesh.   D’Netto, for all this middle segment’s zappy energy, develops an argument with his material, albeit one that is deliberately limited in its breadth, and at the end its grinding power of motion and statement is reduced to a strangely affecting, inaudible pianissimo.   For reasons I can’t quite fathom, the name that kept on suggesting itself was Roy Harris, that hard man of early American modernism who also favoured building sonorous blocks from simple material, although without D’Netto’s spiky jauntiness.

Last cab off this particular rank was Melbournian Abe Vincent’s The Secret Motion of Things which found its impetus in Francis Bacon’s 1627 utopian novel, New Atlantis.  The composer is preoccupied with Bacon’s account of disinterested but benign scientific experimentation in his mythical settlement of Bensalem, and he proposes a musical exploration of what such progress entails for our times where each year brings about unpredictable developments and changes in our lives.   So , while Vincent is treating tangible (scientific) intangibles (philosophy)  –  he’s not alone in that  –   he sensibly refrains from producing a frenziedly busy sound scape or a po-faced Hymn to Optimism.  Yes, the core of the work is highly mobile, both racy and pacy, but what impresses is a deftness in handling orchestral timbres which in this case, given the small number of strings at work, remains disarmingly lucid, marrying mass timbre with individual dynamic masterfully. Mind you, the boom-bash unisons of the final pages seem theatrical and unnecessary, given the work’s emotional context, but perhaps the sense of definite accomplishment they propose to this listener would sound more convincing with greater forces involved.

The outcome of this event is the usual one: two of these scores will be performed during the MSO’s Metropolis series, at the concert on Saturday May 6 conducted by Brett Kelly in the Melbourne Recital Centre.   Which of them merits this distinction is in the hands of an expert committee but I’d be surprised if Static Anxiety missed out on selection.




An unexpected Santa’s breakfast


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday December 10


                                                                              Madison Nonoa

Each year, Paul Dyer and his Brandenburg Orchestra and Choir mount a Christmas program that serves as a kind of intellectually regulated Carols by Candlelight, an event where the current season is paid its dues through familiar tunes and words, as well as some almost-explicable  ring-ins that carry referential overtones.  And this time round, we got to hear some scraps that had absolutely no relevance to this celebratory fortnight at all, hiatus points where the lethargic among us are tempted to slump back and just let the sounds of this inescapably anodyne music creep in our ears.

With no attempt to engage the audience in sing-alongs, the ABO forces saluted general expectations with three verses only of  Once in royal David’s city, led by soprano soloist Madison Nonoa; O little town of Bethlehem from trumpets and sackbuts with percussion trimming; the Coventry Carol, again featuring Nonoa with both melody and descant; God rest you merry, gentlemen not living up to its name with some wayward trumpet articulation; a straight Hark! the herald angels sing; a bi-lingual Silent night, where Tommie Andersson’s guitar reminded us of the work’s original form; and a rousing O come, all ye faithful that avoided the usual fortissimo bursts whenever the line O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord! occurs.

So far, so fine – just what you’d expect to hear in any church lucky enough to have a choir at this time of year.  Surrounding these regulars came a grab-bag of works that surprised but didn’t startle.  For example, the ABO Choir began the evening with Praetorius’ arrangement of Nicolai’s Wachet auf!, performed a cappella and very impressive in its English garb.  I can’t remember from other years the group’s altos all being male, but the body sings here so rarely that it might have been the case on previous occasions; the texture they generate is an oddly unsettling one in lucid writing like this, suggestive of Anglican cathedral choir-stalls, if tempered by the presence of female sopranos.   Vavilov’s pseudo-Caccini Ave Maria gave Nonoa her first solo on the program: an inane lyric carried off effectively with organ underpinning, some vocalising from the choir and a liberal dose of sonic confectionery supplied by Brian Nixon’s chimes.

The Kyrie section of Ola Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass for divisi SATB moves slowly enough in the best Scandinavian/Baltic spiritualist style, its subtitle of The Spheres giving some clue to its inspiration, suggesting the quieter moments in Ligeti’s 2001: A Space Odyssey music.  In realising this score, I think the ABO singers could have taken a more slow tempo, especially across its outer pages, although in the Murdoch Hall any group would find it hard constructing the ethereal bands of disembodied overlapping chords that the composer has made his basic constructional implement.

Eriks Esenvalds’ O salutaris hostia paired Nonoa with an anonymous ABO soprano for the Latvian composer’s amiably euphonious setting of Aquinas’ moving hymn while the 8-part choir worked with a touch too much insistence through their chordal setting of the text as underpinning.  It’s an attractive post-Bernstein Mass creation, the choral numbers here available probably insufficient to do it justice, especially when Esenvalds calls for more sopranos to take up the top lines at the opening to the second verse.   While the program notes gave a fair sense of the text, the final line’s interpretation would have astounded Hilaire Belloc, who couldn’t hear its plea without weeping.   As for the statement that this hymn is used at the Mass’s Consecration, I’ve never heard it in that position but only as the opening step in the odd ritual of Benediction (of the Blessed Sacrament).

Adam’s Cantique de Noel enjoyed a richly resonant treatment.  Nonoa sang the two verses of the original text by Placide Cappeau while the ABO Choir gave her a lush chordal backdrop.  So did the instrumentalists, the trio of sackbuts generating an opulent bass-heavy texture.   After over-much exposure, I can take or leave Amazing Grace; the hymn is trotted out at all sorts of events, public and private, to the point where its gentle lilt has been subjected to as many variants as the American national anthem has suffered in that nation’s sporting arenas.  Nonoa gave it a simple expressiveness over tremolo violins, then with added sackbuts, then with the choir providing their supplementary input – no surprises or whipped-up dynamics, for which relief much thanks.

Alongside these samples of religious music, we heard some strange oddments.  The opening Allegro to Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Trumpets in C is festive in character, I suppose, but the performance on natural instruments was marred by too many bloopers. An anonymous 17th century Sonata a 9 smacked of Venice, but so do an awful lot of compositions from that time involving brass and strings.  It remains unclear what the band was attempting with Rittler’s Ciacona a 7.  The two violins, Matt Bruce and Ben Dollman, and viola Monique O’Dea started wandering round the stage, apparently improvising above the ground bass, but their efforts did not meet with happy rewards. Fortunately, the entry of the brass forces pushed matters back into a sensible mould.

What Con que la lavare by Luis de Narvaez had to do with anything remains a mystery; if nothing else,  it offered a space for Nonoa to display her talent at Renaissance affects, foregrounded by a profusion of supporting musicians, the richest I’ve heard in association with this plaintive cancion  –  theorbo, harpsichord, organ and strings.  For The Luckiest by Ben Folds, the choir sang a cappella with a modest tenor soloist calmly coursing through the song’s unremarkable verses with a telling detachment that suited the work’s character admirably.

This concert began 15 minutes late because the orchestra’s transportation had proved unreliable.   Even so, the program itself, including Dyer’s inevitable address substituting gush for content, lasted an interval-less 75 minutes or so.

You can’t come along to a Noel! Noel! concert expecting to experience the musicological revelations that you find at an Ensemble Gombert Christmas to Candlemas recital. Furthermore,  the ABO organization, like those who sponsor the Bowl and Domain extravaganzas, spreads a pretty wide net to satisfy its intentions of diverting and entertaining.  But this excellent group of performers, even in a reduced-numbers chamber format, has a wealth of material to draw on, with no need for stocking fillers or costume padding.




Visitor fits right in


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Monday November 28


                                                                            Lorenza Borrani   

At the last of its national series concerts this year, the ACO enjoyed the attention of a replacement director in the Italian-born violinist Lorena Borrani, leader of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.  For much of Monday night’s proceedings, she followed the Tognetti principle of leading from the concertmaster’s stand, although less likely than the organization’s artistic director to use her bow as a baton; indeed, I didn’t see her have recourse to this control mode at all and the precision level of the players’ entries didn’t seem to suffer in any of the three works programmed..

Borrani made her solo offering at the start with Schnittke’s Sonata for Violin and Chamber Orchestra, the latter entity comprising strings (about 15) and harpsichord.   For me, the Russian-German composer’s music has presented continual problems; the first work I heard, it seemed, was written by a committee – you couldn’t nail down a specific voice or character to it.   At the time, I said to a moderately enthusiastic John Sinclair, critic for the Herald and also coming to Schnittke’s work for the first time, that it sounded like something written by a committee, each of the movements allocated to specific members.

This sonata goes some way to exemplifying this evaluation although, in these latter days of enlightenment, most of us have become aware of the composer’s adoption of multiple tongues in the one work like this one where a grating acerbity exists alongside common chords that suggest the religiously inspired products of recent Scandinavian and Baltic mystic-writers; and where a meditative Andante of stern serial shape is balanced by a bounding dance movement owing much to jazz and its offshoots.

Borrani showed firm control in each of the four movements, nowhere better than in dialogues – if one-sided in format – with Anthony Romaniuk’s harpsichord, used as a brisk punctuating presence or for its grinding pebbles-imitating potential.   Most of the sonata’s interest lies in the solo violin line which rises to high technical demands and asks its interpreter for a constant variety in production techniques.   Of course, Borrani met each requirement with impressive authority; but then, she has been performing this piece for some years now, directing her Chamber Orchestra of Europe colleagues in it two years ago.  She forged an uncompromising path for the ACO players to follow, notably in a series of slashing chords that cut across the sombre path of the initial movement’s pages, some very soft floating chords in the work’s later stages, and an attractive astringency to give a febrile background for the soloist’s more ardent bursts of action.

Schubert’s Five Minuets with Six Trios for string quartet in an anonymous arrangement enjoyed a vital treatment where the original’s expression markings were observed with high enthusiasm and the players worked through all the repeats.  Pleasant bagatelles, these pieces hold few surprises beyond a few disruptions of expectations where the usual division of eight-bars-per half in both minuets and trios changes, as in the third minuet where the second half is 16 bars long, while its second trio has a second half of 12 bars (and in this reading a liquid solo from Borrani above pizzicato accompaniment), as does the second trio to Minuet 5.   Schubert’s melodies have an assertive energy but the only dramatic (i.e. interesting) moments come in a few bursts of polonaise rhythm – the second trio of Minuet 1 and a couple of bars in Minuet 5 – and the musette/trio to the latter.

Beethoven apparently had a liking for his own C sharp minor Quartet Op. 131, according to one contemporary authority – Karl Holz, the composer’s secretary during the late quartets’ gestation.   No one can deny its incomparable breadth of content and emotional illumination but its transference to string orchestral guise is a dubious undertaking – something I’m coming to question about the whole Beethoven oeuvre in this form. The justification usually advanced revolves around a clarity that is bestowed on the middle lines when you have a number of players dedicated to them.  To my mind, that’s not a relevant argument, suggesting rather a lack of concentration shown by the listener or an incompetence on the part of the musicians involved in the quartet’s delineation.

Of course, with all lines reinforced, the score’s nature is changed into something more sonorous and substantial, particularly in the A Major set of variations and the athletic final Allegro.  Additionally, this interpretation proved very attractive as an aural experience, Borrani asking for pronounced dynamic differentiations, an edgy bowing attack in each Allegro and the Presto,  and a rapid response rate in passages like the fifth movement’s sudden shifts  –  to Molto poco adagio interludes, and to those two delectable Ritmo di quattro battute breaks in the pages’ fleet-footed propulsive drive forward.

Monday’s well-populated house received the performance with enthusiasm and it served as an excellent showcase for the participants’ expertise and sharp-as-a-whip, finely honed ensemble.  In a week when Wagner’s Ring is rampaging at the State Theatre next door to Hamer Hall, this view of Beethoven rang plenty of complementary Romantic bells and brought out strongly the composer’s vehemence and dramatic urgency – qualities that appealed to the later writer.  But, for me, this unsurpassedly rich tapestry of a string quartet was changed into something more in the nature of a concerto grosso – bigger, not necessarily better.




Clear if sometimes tenuous


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday November 20


                                   Grace Clifford

To finish the year, William Hennessy and his orchestra paid tribute to the mother country with a grab-bag program of works by Mendelssohn (honorary Englishman), Byrd, Warlock, Vaughan Williams, Ireland and Mozart, whose collection of eight-to-nine-year-old juvenalia gave this event its title.   All those sketches are for piano; the four excerpts we heard proved amiable enough, but I think Hennessy was straining when he found links between the first piece, a siciliano (or two) in D minor, and the Requiem, or between the following slight G minor Sonata and the Symphony No. 40.    As an experience, all these pieces proved to be amiable, deft exercises at worst, hardly interesting enough to send you searching for the Sketchbook‘s 39 other components.

The only other arrangement in the concert was of Byrd’s six-voice motet Sing joyfully, a cathedral choir favourite.  Its three-minutes’ length passed pleasantly enough, like the Mozart scraps, but its emotional drive was absent, possibly because the tempo taken was pretty slow, more probably because the performance for strings alone lacked the soaring exultation of the text; no incitement here to Blow the trumpet in the new moon, as the Psalmist directs us – just a clean-enough texture of interweaving lines without much personality.

Former principal cellist of this ensemble, Michael Dahlenburg, controlled a placid interpretation of Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture, the score’s sound-world dominated by the wind – twelve of them – who delivered their lines with plenty of vigour in each tutti, swamping the 14 strings.   But the imbalance started earlier with the second subject at bar 47 where the cello/bassoon doubling over-favoured the woodwind.   For all the allowance-making of imaginatively fleshing out sounds that proved faint images of their usual selves, the reading was hard to fault for its technical precision; I heard only one off-kilter violin note somewhere about bar 131.

John Ireland’s Concertino Pastorale is a novelty to many of us (as is anything by this writer) , so this airing of the work’s central Threnody was most welcome.  The MCO strings fully embraced its lush elegance with a splendid lyrical chain supported by emphatic cello pizzicati at climactic moments.   It shares a common language with elegiac scores by the composer’s contemporaries yet it recalls, in its serene sensibility, Barber’s Adagio for Strings although the English piece is more heart-on-sleeve in its declamation, less deliberately monumental than the American masterwork.   It gave the MCO players no apparent worries, their delivery assured and idiomatically convincing.

Violinist Grace Clifford appeared at one of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s most popular Proms Town Hall concerts in July, taking the solo line in Bruch’s Concerto No. 1; an engrossing version, as it turned out, packed with confidence and polish.  For this occasion, she opened with Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, that simple-sounding, always perilous rhapsody that tests any player’s self-reliance because of the several cadenzas that are spread throughout its length.   Clifford kept a level-head and a confident right-arm in play, not put out by some scatter-gun woodwind chording at the score’s opening or a pair of horns that Dahlenburg could have tamped down to beneficial effect. The young soloist articulated a well-honed sound, especially in those exposed passages where you are conscious of the soft whirr of the bow moving over the instrument’s strings, coming to a hall-silencing apogee in the final senza misura solo (not a cough in the house) that ended on a bravely sustained high D to B fall, softening to inaudibility.  Which is dangerous, of course, as you sacrifice some security of pronouncement on the triple-piano altar.  Still, the attempt came close to ideal here.

It’s been a long time since I heard the Capriol Suite – not since Harold Badger took a student group of indifferent quality through the work in an ability-stretching struggle maybe 40 years ago.   Hennessy from his first desk (as for the Ireland, Mozart and Byrd) set a steady pace in this optimistic work, keeping the Pavane on the move, giving an attractive pliancy to the Pieds-en-l’air meditation, and hammering out a brisk Mattachins finale.   The approach might have gained from less weight in delivery, particularly for the admittedly forthright  opening Basse-Danse, but the MCO strings once again handled their work without any apparent discomfort, doing their duty by Warlock in transforming the original Thoinot Arbeau material into an indubitably English composition.

Clifford re-emerged at the program’s end for the Mendelssohn E minor Concerto.  As with her Bruch, she took on this warhorse with a briskness of attack that stayed well away from needless aggression.   Interpreters have to walk a fine line with this concerto, far too many falling into an interpretative trench of gentility, subscribing to the all-embracing conception of the composer’s tendency to Biedermeier  tweeness.  We know Mendelssohn was a moraliser, even verging on a prig – his reactions to Berlioz show a middle-class incomprehension that makes you glad he didn’t survive into the heyday of Wagner – and anybody patronised by the benevolence of Victoria and Albert has an inbuilt burden of cultural attachment.   But this piece has a tensile force in its well-framed paragraphs that has to be delineated with clarity and determination.

Clifford’s first movement cadenza had a drive and dynamic arch to its development that would have been the envy of many a more experienced artist, and she kept her end up in the exciting stretto that finishes  this Allegro.   It wasn’t that this soloist left the sugar out of Mendelssohn’s pendant Andante, but she controlled her vibrato and any  temptation to suffocate the main melody in sentiment.  Not an easy road to follow; has there ever been a slow movement so consciously ‘sweet’?  Her sonata/rondo finale hit all the right points, balancing sprightly delicacy with moments of sweeping breadth, full-bodied to the end without a trace of maidenly reserve or dithering with the composer’s semiquaver streams of action.

I don’t know what Clifford’s commitments are in 2017, apart from a Selby & Friends recital at the Deakin Edge, Federation Square on March 9, participating in piano trios – Beethoven, Saint-Saens, and Dvorak’s Dumky.  But keep your eye out for her Melbourne appearances: so far, they’ve been top-notch efforts.




Vivaldi all over


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday November 5 and Sunday November 6


                  Avi Avital

Not an instrument you come across often, the mandolin.  No performance of Don Giovanni goes through without you hearing its gentle underpinning to a baritone booming out Deh vieni alla finestra; sometimes a director has the sense to put the player onstage.  But otherwise?

A set of mandolin-composing names are put forward in the program booklet for this particular concert.   Thanks to the modern craze for Mahler, you get to hear the instrument in the Symphony No. 7; sadly, this work is among the least commonly performed of the canon.  Then there’s the Symphony No. 8, which is even less often given and calls for at least one mandolin but preferably more; mind you, there’s a long wait before the instrument’s timbre comes out of the maelstrom at Letter 148 of the second movement (and most of the output is pianissimo – hence the call for more than one of them) and later there is ten bars’ work from Letter 187 on.  However, the best of the composer’s ventures comes in Das Lied von der Erde where it features briefly in Von der Schoenheit and to superb effect after Letter 64 in Der Abschied.

Webern, the hero-figure of the 1950s and 1960s, uses mandolin in his Op. 10 Five Pieces for Orchestra; well, he uses it sparingly – 3 notes in No. 3, 13 notes in No. 4, and 6 notes in No. 5.   The instrument also gets a guernsey – actually, a bikini strip – during the second movement in the Cantata No. 1 Op. 29.

Then there’s Schoenberg who scored the instrument into his Serenade, Op. 24; like Mahler in his Symphony No. 7, he also used guitar here.   Later, he gave the instrument a small part in No. 4 of his Variations for Orchestra, then a bigger contribution in that work’s finale. As well, it features in the one-act opera, Von heute auf morgen which, to my shame, I’ve never heard.  The only other use I can find in this composer’s oeuvre is in that vast sprawl of an opera, Moses und Aron where he calls at one point for four mandolinists.

Stravinsky has a mandolin in his opera Le rossignol, as well as in the ballet Agon – and that’s it, as far as I can see.  The program note also lists Verdi (for a chorus in Otello) and Massenet (somewhere in Don Quichotte).  But, early Beethoven apart (two sonatinas, an Adagio and an Andante with variations – all with harpsichord accompaniment), you’re scraping to find solid material in Romantic/Modern repertoire of significance.

Which goes some way towards explaining Israeli-born virtuoso Avital’s emphasis on Vivaldi for his tour with the Brandenburgers.   Along with the original Concerto in C RV 425, he also offered his own transcription of Summer from The Four Seasons and the solo violin A minor Concerto from L’estro armonico.    Couple that with a Paisiello concerto in E flat (a dubious attribution, it turns out – one of three mandolin works ascribed uncertainly to Napoleon’s favourite composer) and a set of Six Miniatures on Georgian Folk Themes from the mid-20th century by an enthusiastically nationalistic writer in Sulkhan Tsintsadze, and you have a guest who’s very generous with his time and talents.

Paul Dyer and his reduced orchestra played two works in their own right.   Vivaldi’s Concerto in C RV 110, with its reminiscences of the well-known Two Trumpet Concerto, made a brisk throat-clearer involving (I think) the truncated ABO’s full complement of five violins and single viola, cello and double bass supported by Dyer’s omni-present harpsichord.  Avital made fine work of the RV 356 in A minor with a mobility of dynamic during the four solo passages in the opening Allegro and about the same number in the finale.   He enjoyed a good deal of prominence in the middle Largo where the orchestral background is confined to sustained chords, giving ample space to exhibit  his ability at shaping a line, admittedly one that barely stretches above an octave’s range.

Giuseppe Valentini’s A minor Concerto grosso, one of the longer of the composer’s Op. 7 set of twelve, was reduced from the original six movements to four; more than enough, given the predictable sequences that brought to mind first year counterpoint exercises, although the interweaving of the four solo violin lines came off quite well.   In the Georgian Folk Themes, Avital got to use the tremolo technique that most of us associate with his instrument; the Vivaldi works and the Paisiello tended to ask in the main for single notes only.   The suite itself is a pleasant entity, its melodies shaped into well-rounded format, Tsintsadze’s orchestration slick, a few harmonic quirks thrown in as a sort of post-Bartokian salute to a man who really knew what to do with a folk tune..

As for the C Major Concerto RV 425, you could hardly wish for a more authoritative interpretation: brisk even in the central slow movement, precise in its right-hand work and continuously interesting for its contrasts – very welcome in a piece where executants feel they’ve met their responsibilities by getting all the notes.  Still, it’s been a long time since I last heard this work live; in fact, probably not since Kurt Jensen’s years presenting concerts at St. John’s Southgate.

Avital introduced the Paisiello work with a short address, drawing contrasts between Venetian and Neapolitan schools, some of which rang fairly true.  But his insistence on this composer’s powers to startle with abrupt changes of harmony seemed far-fetched, once you settled into the work itself; not much of novel interest struck the ear as the opening maestoso oscillated between E flat and B flat with some glancing side-swipes. Here, more than anywhere else, a few more strings would have helped add to the work’s density, although it has to be admitted that the score’s effectiveness gained by having Avital audible throughout.

The final, seasonal Vivaldi proved to be right up the ABO’s street, Avital infusing it with vivid emphases, driving bravura passages and a relish for the stop-start nature of the opening feast of bird-song and heat-washed languor.  Later, the storms of the finale roused plenty of enthusiasm, although the final ascending flourish of 2nds from bars 116 to 119 didn’t impress as much as the preceding rapid-fire solos.  Still, this full house reacted as you’d expect – with a torrid energy mirroring the score itself; actually, even more than you glean from Vivaldi’s excitement-rousing tutti exclamations.

If you must have transcriptions for the mandolin, then you can hardly do better than the Venetian master’s sun-drenched confections.  And every concert benefits significantly if it features a guest artist who matches the host players’ driving enthusiasm and brio in accomplishment.