All clear

BACH TO BACH

Calvin Bowman

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Sunday April 12

Calvin

                                                                   Calvin Bowman

Over the years, some Australian musicians have put themselves forward  –  or been promoted  –  as front-rank Bach experts  and I’ve heard more than a few of them stake their claims with pretensions great and small.   But my vote for primus inter pares not (to mention inferiores) would be organist Calvin Bowman.   He first performed the complete organ works over a series of recitals in 1995, of which I heard a few on the Smenge instrument in St. John’s Lutheran Church, Southgate, Melbourne.   Then I dipped in and out of his presentation of the total Bach output for solo organ across one day/night in the Melbourne Town Hall: a singular event that brightened up an otherwise bland Arts Festival in 2009.   Finally, another complete one-day rendition took place at the 2018 MOFO in St. John’s Church (Cathedral?), Launceston.  A further run-through was planned across several recitals this year in St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Brighton where Bowman is organist, but that’s been delayed for obvious reasons.

Much of the music for this Sunday night all-Bach recital was for harpsichord originally, although a smattering of organ pieces arrived by way of transcription/transmutation.  Bowman opened with the C minor Fantasia BWV 906 without its attendant fugue, hurtling into the opening arpeggios with gusto and clarity, saving his sustaining pedalling for the mood swings at bar 9, and later at bar 25.   I was elated by the sense of purpose that obtained in the chromatic complexes at bars 14-15 and 37-38, as by the drama released in the concluding statement that begins at bar 34; the whole, a terse construct eloquently brought to life.

Written for lute or harpsichord, the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro BWV 998 is a keyboard favourite that has led many an interpreter into excess, particularly during its opening pages.   Bowman played its first part straight: completely unadorned, letting the meandering right hand speak its part without deviation with only a slight mis-speaking at about bar 34.   The fugue enjoyed a similar uncluttered statement, the sustaining pedal only employed when the semiquavers started in earnest at bar 29.   In fact, Bowman showed himself more than assured enough with the interweaving part-writing to need little help in imposing sense on the movement’s progress.    Nothing major marred the progress of the concluding segment beyond some short, sharp signs of fatigue in the final repeat of the piece’s second part – blips on a serene surface.

A dislike of the Italian Concerto BWV 971 stems from my experiences of its first movement which a teacher constrained me to master in 1960.   The encounter was unpleasant (as is much knowledge gained for exam purposes only) but it gave me an admiration for pianists who can handle its intricacies with at least an appearance of enjoyment.   Bowman bounced through the opening pages, sure of his direction despite some passing treble uncertainty in bar 105; but the whole central part of this movement is an outwardly optimistic, inwardly bedevilling melange and even this gifted musician looked and sounded relieved to come back to clear water at bar 163’s restatement of the opening sequence, the tempo slightly increasing and the delivery buoyant.

Bach’s middle Andante movement found Bowman unafraid to employ rubato and showing a welcome tendency to give the right hand’s long stretches of action a good deal of liberality; no strict lines or rhythms here, the player heightening or lengthening notes to emphasize the piece’s idiosyncratic progress as in bars 30-31 where the syncopations proved notably unpredictable.    Just as tellingly, Bowman eschewed the temptation to use the repeated pedal Cs and As at critical points as hammer blows or portents of doom; they remained simply part of the sombre undercroft to the treble’s extended arioso. Because of the clarity of finger-work, some errors enjoyed unusual transparency in the Presto finale.    Yet, at those stages where the action cuts back to two invention-type lines, the performance gleamed: such interludes  –  between bars 25 and 52, 77 to 96, 155 to 173  –  showed spirit and vitality through simple textural contrast.

With the Fantasia super Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV 695,  Bowman moved back into organ territory, although this piece does not require the pedals that are eventually required for the BWV 718 chorale prelude on the same hymn tune.   This work came over with convincing fluency, the alto-situated chorale processing through the two outer lines with unruffled poise.   Many an interpreter treats Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein BWV 734 as a toccata, with all attention on the treble semiquavers; organists have a better time of it with the tenor melody given to the pedals, but a good pianist can give an informed account of it if the music’s purpose is kept in mind.   I might have preferred Bowman to have taken it a tad more quickly with less four-square stolidity and more use of the piano’s subtle expressive powers, but the end result was jaunty enough, a celebration rather than a race to redemption.

The recital concluded with two arrangements for piano.  The first by Bax of the G Major Fantasia for organ BWV 572 omitted the opening 27 bars and the closing 17 bars.  Admittedly, these are peripheral to the work’s main content: a massive five-part contrapuntal exercise in extended chorale shape that the British composer reinforced with doubled pedal/bass notes and aimed for slight relief from the original’s massive weight by moving the treble up an octave at about bar 104 of the original score, if only for a short while.    Bax also cut out a few bars at the end to give the extract a solid concluding cadence.   All very well as an  exercise but it struck me as heavy going; yes, so is the organ original which is Schweitzer-monochrome in character but the duration of notes in the counterpoint is not compromised, as it must be in a piano treatment.

To end, we heard Max Pirani’s transcription of the 21-bar-long middle Largo of the F minor Harpsichord Concerto.   This is the flip side to the D minor Andante from the Italian Concerto, here labelled Arioso and a much more orthodox melody.   I think it has been transposed up a semitone from its original A flat Major and Pirani fleshed out its length by repeating the first 6 ½ bars.    Some of the right-hand figuration was left out, as were the final 2 or 3 bars – just the same as Bax’s transcription preceding this.  So Bowman chose a pleasant encore piece to conclude: nothing challenging or profound but, in this treatment, appealingly Romantic in timbre.

Certainly, it’s a kind of Bach performance that appals purists but appeals to pianists who, across the past 270 years, have been unable to leave the composer’s output alone.   Do we need to hear these revisions?    Well, they don’t hurt anybody if they’re carried out with discretion and Pirani has been more careful than most to leave the work close to intact.  Furthermore,  it’s easy to put this sort of thing together and easy to play; not as jejune as Switched-On Wendy Carlos, but not as memorable as Webern’s Ricercar mutation.

It was beyond the reach of this series to have Bowman play an organ; performers are currently limited to the stage of the Athenaeum Theatre and to a minimum of human interactions during their work.   This recital served as an illuminating witness of the Melbourne musician’s encounters with Western music’s father-figure, but such an experience only tells part of the story.    We can but hope that next time Bowman might be able to give us a fuller display of his remarkable insights, albeit from a well-sterilised church.

 

A long goodbye

SCHUBERT FROM BEYOND: THE LAST PIANO SONATA

Kristian Chong

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Friday April 3 at 6 pm

Chong

                                                                     Kristian Chong

For his recital program in this worthy and welcome series, young Australian veteran Chong put most of his interpretative eggs into a Schubertian basket, giving us a reading of the final B flat Sonata that came off successfully, chiefly because the pianist knew exactly what he was about, particularly in his reading of the lengthy opening Molto moderato.  You might have asked for a more relaxed slow movement or for less force exerted during the Scherzo; still, it’s a work that speaks to many people in different voices – Richter, Brendel, Curzon, Radu Lupu for me –  and its emotional breadth is so vast and flexible that it accommodates many readings.

To clear his throat, Chong began with two short pieces that have spoken to him across his career.   Siloti’s famous transcription down to B minor of the E minor Prelude from Book I of Bach’s 48  rose to its high point in bar 15 with careful attention given to delineating the alto line melody, as well as a supple diminuendo from the point where the arranger starts spelling out the specific spacing of his left hand arpeggios.   So far. so fine, if a terse entity without its simple 2-part fugue.

Chong has had notable success with certain works by Rachmaninov: the C minor and D minor Concertos, and the Paganini Rhapsody, as well as the Op. 32 Preludes, which he has made part of his public repertoire for at least a decade.   In particular, the pianist has a predilection for the B minor Prelude, No. 10 in the series.  From where the excitement ramps up in bars 18-19, this performance took on a fine authority with an authentic clangour to the weighty chain of thick chords in both hands, the peroration sinking quickly before the change of texture at Rachmaninov’s L’istesso tempo direction

Similarly, Chong’s subterranean fervour in the bars preceding the cadenza demonstrated his control of the prelude’s structure, tension coming from the inevitable progress towards a rhythmic dissolution as well as a brilliant variation of light and shade, tension and resolution, action and hiatus.   I could have done with more spikiness in the right hand during the cadenza where brisk separation brings some welcome glitter to the work’s overall sombre surface.   But the final reminiscence, in particular the last five bars, rounded off a formidable reading of this piece’s gloom-laden pageant.

Schubert’s final sonata has been appearing on Chong’s recital programs for about six or seven years; you can be quite sure that he knows what he’s doing with it.   Or. at least, he has an informed insight regarding its interpretative challenges.   The work has been over-stressed with insights that range from the incisive to the fanciful, this composer being subject to almost as much formulaic type-casting as Chopin; the creators of Lilac Time have  done Schubert as little service as the brainiacs who devised A Song to Remember, or Magic Fire, or Song Without End, or the truly execrable Song of Scheherazade,  But, while you can find some excuses for the cinematic/musical excesses of certain screen biographies of composers, Schubert has been sentimentalised to an extraordinary degree over the past century.

I remember Michael Easton giving a pre-recital talk for Musica Viva in the stalls foyer of Melbourne’s Hamer Hall and being almost physically assaulted by an elderly patron who was incensed at Easton’s observation that Schubert had contracted syphilis about six years before his death.   This tends to undermine the patina of refreshing wholesomeness that surrounds the composer of Who is Sylvia?, Hark, hark! the lark and Standchen.   But can the disease’s physical destruction be called on to explain the subterranean trill in bar 8 that recurs during the Molto moderato and represents . . . what?   The threat of mercury?  Or simply an intimation of mortality?

Whatever your view, this sonata is not so much a technical mine-field as a long-running test of coherence, presenting pages of long paragraphs as a continuum, rather than a juxtaposition of discrete segments which isn’t helped by a series of pauses/fermatas that punctuate the flow.    Chong’s outline of the opening movement’s exposition proved intelligent – a fine line walked between restraint and excitement, as in the gloves-off exhilaration of the move to F sharp minor at bar 48.    He let the tension sag around the interrogation marks at the bar 110 mark but – wonder of wonders – he then took the first ending and repeated the exposition: something I haven’t heard in years.

Through the development, you could not fault the performer’s drive, finding purpose in the triplet pattern and the build-up to calm waters at bar 173.   Even so, a few final quavers of the triplet pattern tended to disappear, not quite sounding or swamped by left hand action.   (As at a previous recital of this series, at this late stage I discovered that the A above Middle C was slightly off.)   At that pivotal bar 173, we could have done with more dynamic cut-back to signal the move to a D minor oasis.    But the escape into the recapitulation at bars 215-216 found just the right ambience of relief in two senses of the word – contrast and relaxation.   Further, Chong treated us to an especially gracious conclusion, the main theme’s final appearance and transformation an excellent passage, the concluding four chords eloquently placed and articulated.

We’ve grown used to quite slow second movements as even great interpreters tend to linger over phrase/sentence climaxes.   Chong centred more on the Andante direction than the sostenuto  –  quite acceptable, particularly if you want to avoid overdoing the pathos (if you think it’s there).    Matters proceeded very well up to bar 408 where the right-hand alto triplets could have been accounted for with less deliberation; here again, a few of these supporting notes went missing, possibly because of the rate at which Chong was going through them.   Nevertheless, the return to C sharp minor at bar 447 reinforced your realization of the pianist’s arching overview of the movement, with a sympathetic subtlety in the heart-stopping move to C Major 14 bars further along.   An avoidance of indulgence also obtained at the final key signature change which quite a few players treat as a Debussyan shimmer, but here you could admire the unabashed across-the-bar sustaining pedal work in this final section where the forward motion is blurred intentionally and the music aspires to a benevolent sonorous halo.

As for the Scherzo, Chong punched his way through it, slamming with unexpected ferocity into bar 530: those right-hand arpeggiated chords have rarely sounded so abrupt.   No troubles with the minor key Trio which asks for heavier-handed emphasis, but you’d expect more sparkle in the movement’s outer pages which are distinguished for their swift delicacy, not any inbuilt force.   In the finale, the interpretation mirrored the first movement in its consistency of attack, despite the more overt shifts in material treatment and abrupt punctuating breaks.   Chong’s handling of the syncopated left hand quavers between bars 220 and 235 appealed for its lack of jerkiness and made you look forward to the pattern’s three recurrences.    More pounding distracted for a while from bar 375 where both hands are well occupied but not necessarily competing.    Once again,  as with most other readings, the final 27 (28) presto bars were given pell-mell handling, sense sacrificed to speed.   Chong is by no means alone in taking this oddly gabbling approach but he might be better to focus less on excitement and more on clarity, especially with regard to pedalling.

In the end, an interpretation that impressed in its chief contours as it wove the composer’s extraordinarily open-ended melodic fabric across a substantial time-scale, gave a clearly thought-out narrative in three of its four movement-sections, maintained a firm technical command despite the work’s stamina-straining demands, and won you round to many unexpected configurations and expressive insights.

 

 

 

 

A flurry of flashy favourites

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

Elyane Laussade

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday April 2 at 6 pm

elyanecopy

                                                                   Elyane Laussade

Another in the welcome series of socially distant recitals from Christopher Howlett and Adele Schonhardt’s excellent initiative, this program brought back into play a good many well-known scraps from the piano literature.   Laussade’s aim was to offer an entertainment that demonstrated the two sides to her own situation of having both French and American parents.   So we enjoyed some Debussy, a Chaminade study and the first of Satie’s Gnossiennes; from the United States came a brace by Scott Joplin, a Zez Confrey bracket, and the piano solo version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

All these works were written inside a 45-year window, two studies standing at the temporal extremes; Chaminade’s Automne Concert Etude dates from around 1885 while Confrey’s atypical F sharp minor Concert Etude was written in 1929.   So it was a pretty closely circumscribed world that Laussade showed us, the two pivots of the hour coming in Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau and the always taxing Gershwin extended fusion – one of the few that actually works and standing tall among the composer’s happier inspirations.

Somewhere along the way, the program was changed.   Originally, Joplin was represented only by his Maple Street Rag; as matters turned out, we also got to enjoy The Easy Winners.   Likewise, Confrey’s etude was partnered with the jazz writer’s much better-known (and more representative) Dizzy Fingers.  To my disappointment, we lost Ravel’s Ondine, that inspired, lavish series of pianistic splashes; instead Laussade performed a very individual reading of the first (and most attractive) in the three-part sequence that constitutes the first set of Satie’s possibly Cretan-inspired meditations.

Chaminade’s well-known piece is not that hard to negotiate if you are gifted with a talent for emphasizing an internal melody line.   Its central Con fuoco section offers more challenges, even if the action dies out into a very conventional couple of cadenza bars before a return to the opening material.     Laussade’s attack was packed with rubato which fitted in with the work’s title, and it emphasized the attractive lyricism of the outer sections, although a plethora of pauses interrupted the piece’s fluidity near the opening of the F minor interlude.  This reading put poetry before drama – a wise decision, given the Frenchwoman’s by-the-numbers attempts at the latter.

Both Joplin pieces were treated with absolute determination, the Maple Street notable for its accurate, striding left hand assurance and a sensible dynamic alternation across some of the repeats.  Later, The Easy Winners gained much from Laussade’s sense of the music’s shape as she refrained from the customary devil-take-the-hindmost assault, interpolating a few hesitations to relieve the potential tedium of a steady four-quavers-per-bar octave bass line.

Nothing much to report of the Debussy pair.   This interpretation of Reflets dans l’eau came across as rhythmically four-square for most of its duration, the executant keeping more strictly in time than most other performers a kind reference to some notably sloppy readings from very big names.   Even the Quasi cadenza stretch between bars 20 and 35 made rhythmic sense – for once.    You might have preferred a lighter approach at the En animant in bar 44 but once again the following strophes were kept on leash rather than given over to a free-for-all.    The piece’s final page passed rather quickly; I suspect that bars 74 and 78 were rushed, but the concluding Lent could not have been bettered for its amplitude and delicacy of articulation.   The following La fille aux cheveux de lin delighted for its lack of self-indulgence: a sensible reading with some clever extension of marked pauses to give some tension to this unforgettable rural idyll; no curls here.

Confrey’s etude is a very competent arpeggio essay which works best if given at a consistent rate.   Laussade took plenty of liberties, interpolating pauses and ritardandi, but even then not quite secure in its negotiation.   Still, she struck through to the post-Czerny, post-Chopin core of these pages – a fully Romantic throwback written a full century after the etude’s actual vogue.   Much more entertainment came from one of Confrey’s greatest successes, Dizzy Fingers, which is a clear successor to the Joplin era and a catchy sample of amiable virtuosity asking for deftness and a moto perpetuo approach.   Laussade had no troubles with this bagatelle, even if she gave it more gravity than it deserved.

The Gnossiennes present a problem because you don’t know how seriously to regard them.   Laussade told us she considers this first one to be ‘dark’, a work ‘that truly represents what we may be feeling in this very difficult time’.   And that’s how she played it – without any quirkiness or laissez aller frivolity, finding an implacable tragedy in the acciaccatura-rich chorus that concludes each paragraph and giving the music plenty of space  –  what else should you do in a work where there are no bar-lines?   This approach gave – to me, at least –  a new view of this familiar piece, one that had always seemed curious, slightly simple-minded in its regularity.

Gershwin’s great rhapsody presents pianists with hefty challenges at every turn, the whole thing made more difficult in the version where accompaniment is absent and the player is left to carry a can full to overflowing.    Even the composer’s own recorded version makes for a wearing experience.  S till, Laussade made a brave start with a gentle, relaxed approach to the opening pages with only the slightest hitch at the first of the ossia bars.   The first and second bars that start with a triplet figure after the poco agitato direction sounded unfocused, improving as the pattern became more common.  Nevertheless, the rest of the piece’s first half proved to be well-considered and delivered with an insightful response to each episode – and God knows, there are a lot of them.

A few notes went missing in bars 34-36 after the tonality changes to G major but the ensuing fortissimo D flat explosion succeeded in rounding out this stomp with resounding success.   And the long ruminations on the Andantino moderato E Major tune made for a fine experience, the performer taking us fully into the composer’s calmly syncopated ambience that has its unmistakable echoes of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.    A few errors cropped up in the shift to Agitato e misterioso when the left hand is asked to cross over; later, the post-left hand glissando bars sounded awkward and laboured, but these are among the hardest pages of this solo version where the executant is lumbered with both the orchestra’s carrying of the sparked-up melody and also the soloists’ syncopated decoration  in the second half of each 4-bar phrase.

Laussade put in two bars extra before bringing the right hand in for the Grandioso cakewalk, and these final pages brought us back full circle to Maple Street, thanks to Gershwin’s inspired braggadocio, here realized with drive and panache.   In fine, an elevating version of this masterpiece, which resounds with confidence and optimism as it hymns the Republic’s self-assurance – qualities that radiated loud and clear from this fine artist’s realization.

 

 

 

Relief in a time of drought

PASTORALE

Tristan Lee

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Saturday March 28 at 4 pm

Tristan Lee

                                                                      Tristan Lee

Of course!   Use the internet to provide a live-performance musical fix in these alienated times.   Nobody comes into contact with anybody else; although I’m sorry I missed the Arcadia Winds recital, just to see if they observed the 20-metre rule or if they occupied separate booths to avoid breath contamination.   At all events, you have to hand it to Chris Howlett and Adele Schonhardt for setting in motion this exercise where local musicians get to beam out a short program, about an hour long, charging the recipients $20 a pop.

By ‘local’, I mean just that, of course: you won’t be getting any interstate or international visitors dropping in to do a broadcast until the New Age dawns.   So these MDCH performers are well-known quantities, particularly for Melbourne concert-goers: the Arcadians, pianists Tristan Lee and Stefan Cassomenos, early music experts Latitude 37 (are all three Melbourne residents these days?), cellist Zoe Knighton,  pianists Elyane Laussade and Kristian Chong, and the Songmakers Australia quintet.   Yes, it’s a bit heavy on the keyboard element but, with a bit of luck, a string quartet or a piano quintet is not an impossibility in the future of this enterprise with its lowest possible overheads.

The reason I didn’t catch the Arcadia was because I forgot the time difference between Queensland and the other eastern coast states; tuning in for the group’s Mendelssohn/Saint-Saens/Glinka program, only to find the telecast was over. Disappointing, but a timely warning of how go-ahead Palaszczuk’s government is: if you want to hear a 5 pm program from Melbourne, you have to tune in up here at 4 pm.   Just like the Nobel Prize winner sang: The hours they are a-changin’.

In any case, I experienced Tristan Lee’s recital on Saturday afternoon at which he played the Intermezzo No. 1 from the Op. 117 set by Brahms, the Pastoral(e) Sonata Op 28 in D Major by Beethoven, and Liszt’s Two Legends S. 175.   These last-mentioned feature on an earlier Move disc by Lee released a year ago and which is mainly taken up by Volume II of the composer’s Années de pèlerinage.    Lee has been performing Beethoven’s Op. 27 pair of sonatas for some time but I think this might have been his first ‘public’ essay at the next work in the composer’s catalogue.

As for the Brahms, it’s a fundamental in the piano repertoire (wasn’t it on the old AMEB lists?) and, if another person observes how difficult it is to play superficially simple Brahms, I’ll start cursing with associated profanities.   This is a slow-moving piece  –  a lullaby, from the composer’s prefatory quote  –  that asks for the executant to control the interplay of lines so that the melody isn’t obscured by whatever is going on around it.   A simple ternary structure holds what is essentially a study in finger pressure.   Lee found no difficulties here, even if his approach to the middle Piú adagio section was to take it very slowly indeed with not much of an advance in pace for the final page.   But you couldn’t fault his voice-leading discrimination and finesse of delivery.

For quite a few years, this pianist has been programming the two Op. 27 sonatas, not afraid to have his own way with the Moonlight C sharp minor work in the face of massive competition.   He gave a spirited reading of the Op. 28, hitting an agreable speed and timbre for the opening Allegro, inserting his own rubato at proper points, as after the right-hand quintuplet in bar 108, even if making heavy work of part of the development, specifically between bars 177 and 190.

At about this point (late in the day, I know), it struck me that the Kawai instrument’s E below Middle C was out of tune; not that you noticed until those few occasions when the note was played by itself.  But it made a minor distraction during the rest of the work.

While you could find justifications for much of Lee’s rhythmic ebb and flow, an unnecessary mini-pause at a spot like Bar 351 struck me as unnecessary: we’re familiar with the chordal progression and know where it’s leading; so, if you insert a break, the sequence is ruined.

In the following Andante, Lee gave an excellent rendition of the left-hand staccato patterns, present but unobtrusive which is a hard task to accomplish in this context.  Every so often, that over-used series of right-hand thirds would lose the alto part, as at the end of bar 11 where the D got lost.   But Beethoven’s deft agglomeration of motives from bar 53 on in the movement’s coda enjoyed a sensitive delineation with just enough hesitation to add an extra level of interest.   As for the Scherzo, Lee gave it an unexpected heftiness which detracted from the potential sparkle in the little three-note figures that balance the movement’s distinctive octave whacks.

A glitch in the left hand octave passage work raised momentary alarm in the Trio‘s secunda parte; in similar fashion, some sequence work went astray in the stretch between bars 80 to 90 of the final Rondo and a right-hand arpeggio sounded incomplete at bar 119.    But you had to admire Lee’s attack on the Piú allegro coda which turned into a bit of a momentary scramble half-way through.   And the pianist brought out the easily flowing, potentially bucolic essence of the main theme with a keen sense of when/where to pull out the dramatic stops.

Finally, the two Liszt extravaganzas made an excellent impression.   Unlike many another interpreter, Lee kept his birds in line before St. Francis arrived to preach his sermon; plenty of fetching twittering, but well-ordered and disciplined – unusual for Italian birds, let alone an open-air aviary.   Nevertheless, the long-building crescendo to the great A flat explosion was a splendid accomplishment, despite a few missing notes, and the deceleration across the final pages proved to be well-spaced, the move back to bird-calls articulated with a fine eye for careful pacing.

More powerfully virtuosic writing comes in the second Legend where St. Francis of Paula encounters powerful seas and the chromatic urgency in the mini-tone poem’s central section proved exhilarating for the listener, although it tested Lee’s rapidity in hand positioning and register-changing vaults from bar 72 for the next 30 bars.   Just as much as in the St. Francis piece, the eruption into a relieving E Major when the saint masters the waves was a splendid passage of high pianism, Lee’s powerful thundering a tribute to the composer’s ability to generate sonorous torrents from his instrument, as well as evidence of this performer’s sympathy with, and success in, performing some of Liszt’s more challenging constructs.

No matter what you think of the religiose backgrounds to them, this brace provides more than a series of technical hurdles, even if you cannot escape the suspicion that the theatrical scenes are heavy on make-up and lighting.   Lee demonstrated that exemplary ability of carrying you along with him, despite the occasional wobble, so that you embraced the commitment from both creator and interpreter, even tolerating those slightly intrusive scene-setting accoutrements.

 

 

 

 

Still top of the class

GARRICK OHLSSON

Queensland Conservatorium Theatre

Thursday February 27

ohlsson

                                                                  Garrick Ohlsson

It’s great to have your preconceptions confirmed.  I’ve been lucky enough to attend most of this American musician’s Melbourne recitals since he started touring Australia and here he is once more, thanks to the good graces of Musica Viva Australia, which organization chose Ohlsson to open its international concert season for 2020.  You can look at the other artists to come in this series  –  Piers Lane and the Goldner String Quartet, the Cho-Ling/Parker duo, Les Talens Lyriques (but let’s not boast), Diana Doherty and the Eggner Trio back again, the Goldmund Quartet who won the last Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition, and the San Franciscan vocal dodecad Chanticleer – but you could be excused for thinking that the best wine has been served first.

With Ohlsson, you enjoy that all-too-rare performance element: complete trust.  On Thursday evening, the opening pages of Beethoven came over with just as much individuality and command as the final piece I heard –  a Chopin encore.  Confidence in craft practice is not that rare; these days, we expect a musician to be technically close to flawless in live performance and a great many concerts and recitals justify our confidence.  What you don’t get as  matter of course is interpretative skill where the player invests  each phrase with informed character.   Yes, you can come across other pianists with loads of personality; Bernstein as a pianist fell into this category, for instance – not all show, but example after example of attention-grabbing.   The  gift of taking you into a musical narrative or stream and not letting go: that’s very rare.   Several big names on the international scene that I’ve heard spring to mind as coming close to the ideal – Paul Lewis, Stephen Hough, Marc-Andre Hamelin – but very few have this power of demanding involvement.   Nikolai Demidenko is one; Ohlsson, another.

The visitor offered two programs on his Australian tour, the alternative one comprising Brahms (the Two Rhapsodies, the late Seven Fantasias and Book 2 of the Paganini Variations) coupled with Chopin’s Nocturne No. 1 and last Sonata in B minor.   Program 2 featured two sonatas – Beethoven No. 11 in B flat and Prokofiev No. 6 – with a post-interval Chopin swag involving the F sharp Impromptu, the Berceuse, the third Scherzo, and Etudes 5-10 of the Opus 25 set.   Ohlsson had already performed this melange in Sydney, Perth and Melbourne (and probably elsewhere, for all I know), and he has recorded all of it except the Russian work.

For my money, the Beethoven Op. 11 Sonata is imbalanced, the real interest arriving in the last movement, a rondo combining muted optimism and a richness of material that even Mozart would have envied.   However, even in the preceding parts Ohlsson demonstrated his ability at finding striking novelties, like the powerful bass notes in bars 50-52, an unfalteringly loud delivery of the arpeggios in the development’s centre from bar 92 onward, and the balancing calm of the left-hand progression to the recapitulation.  The following Adagio, with its siciliana suggestions, illustrated the pianist’s ability in handling rough surfaces like the repeated left hand chords and pedal notes, which other interpreters attempt to mitigate in insistence.   Later, in the Minore Trio of the third movement, all 16 bars were handled with forte energy, ensuring that the surrounding segments acquired an added charm and warmth.

But the final movement gave us an extended instance of Ohlsson’s adroit mastery of Beethoven’s composition where the fluency of imagination shows as tautly harnessed and brimming with potential.   The recurring theme is eventually infused into the structure and it takes a highly informed perceptiveness to cross through its content without hammering the obvious.  Through these pages, the interpretation moved onto a high level where phrases seemed to arc naturally and the filigree sounded unflustered and organic.

At the unforgettable opening to Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6, Ohlsson maintained the major-minor tension through a dynamic attack that remained sensibly couched so that the harmonic clashes sounded present and clear, presenting in its later complex working-out a full realisation of the composer’s violent, dogged emotional landscape that stays fraught even in light-textured staccato interludes.   Not that you can avoid the smash-and-grab character of the final pages but Ohlsson kept his sustaining pedal under careful control, ensuring that any sound wash couldn’t turn into a meaningless blur.

The second movement Allegretto brings to mind the ballets (for instance, the warm stream from bar 5 through to the a tempo marking) with its clear-cut melodies given a wrong-note dressing; while you took in the clarity of execution, the movement’s legerdemain reminded you of what a formidable pianist Prokofiev was.   Likewise, the following slow waltz – like the preceding Beethoven’s slow movement, a quasi-siciliana in 9/8 – called up the shade of Juliet; not surprising, as this work and the ballet are near-contemporaries.  Here also, Ohlsson delighted with his insight into the composer’s brilliantly contrived textures, leading the listener through the lavish sequence of slightly-tainted concords that peak in a rousing B Major peroration.

Prokofiev’s finale begins as a cross between a moto perpetuo and a march, not quite optimistic but mobile enough; slight in its matter and balancing the first movement’s clangour.   That is, until the writer brings the work’s opening motif back in an Andante break from the march – a brief if gloomy hiatus before the semi-quavers return and the work slashes a grinding path to its in-my-end-is-my-beginning last bars.   Along this journey, Ohlsson gifted us with a formidable reading, accomplished with no attention-grabbing dramatics, not even in the col pugno first movement smashes; rather, we enjoyed a luminous outline of the work, all its pianistic terrors handled with sensibility and masterly flair.

As for this night’s Chopin pieces, the Impromptu No. 2 is a vital window into the composer’s creative fecundity, giving the impression of near-improvisation but every addition and deviation has been ideally situated.   I was hugely impressed by the executant’s realisation of the long demi-semiquaver figuration that precedes the last 10 remembrance-of-things-past bars;  a gripping demonstration of how to find placidity in a mobile sound-web.  The six Etudes achieved their end of exhibiting the player’s control of Chopin’s several technical tests, but here invested with personality – especially the No 6 exercise in 3rds and its counterweight in No. 8’s demand for even consecutive 6ths.   Still, what lives in the memory is Ohlsson’s commanding double octave hectoring in No. 10 with a superb performance of the final six bars where the energy reaches its climax as the octaves fly in opposite directions: an enlightening conclusion to a reading that managed to juxtapose successfully a rough assault with that sophistication you find in the best interpreters of this composer’s most aggressive pages.

As you’d expect, the Berceuse enjoyed a gentle dynamic; even the moment of deepest passion at bar 23 came across as integral to the prevailing pianopianissimo approach.  And the sequences of thirds, triplet semiquaver chords, delicate use of C flat as the piece heads into its final variations – all impressed for their contributions to this interpretation’s fluency.   Finally, Ohlsson outlined one of those works that keeps every pianist striving: the C sharp Scherzo.   For much of its length, this was a master-class in rubato.   Nothing was rushed or thrown away as the performer gave full value to the volatile flights that are dotted throughout the score in profusion.   It had the lot: virtuoso right-hand streams, eloquent chorales and their tail-ending chattering arpeggio patterns, driving rhetoric in double octaves, and a gripping stretto that made you hold your breath with tension.

I don’t usually stick around for encores; if the performer has done his job, there’s no need.   But I stayed this time for a refresher course in Rachmaninov’s Op. 3 C sharp minor Prelude – no wonder the composer got sick of it, especially when you consider the gems to be found in the Op.  23 and Op. 43 sets – and a busily whimsical version of Chopin’s Minute Waltz in D flat.   Icing on the cake, some might think; to me, a case of gimme-that-old-time-religion audience reassurance.

 

Talent, with bursts of brilliance

PASSING BELLS

Brisbane Music Festival

Old Museum Brisbane, Bowen Hills

Wednesday December 18

ALEX_RAINERI_SLIDER_2560x1100_HERO

                                                                     Alex Raineri

Taking on the full weight of his undertaking, Brisbane Music Festival director Alex Raineri finished the 10-event series with a solo recital, given to a respectably sized audience in the ‘second’ room at the front of the Bowen Hills museum building, which does not have ceiling-to-floor drapes along three of the four walls. as I thought: the material only covers part of them, albeit that section of the space in which the performer(s) operate(s).   Since the last offering in this festival that I attended (Friday December 13), it sounded as if the piano had not been tuned, which made some difference to the pre-interval music, if not much to the more adventurous works that fleshed out a longer-than-expected program.

Raineri began with Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op. 28 – a sequence that is speckled with a few pieces that have become very familiar like No. 4 in E minor, the 8-bar No. 7 in A Major, the D flat Major No. 15.   But most of the remainder are known only to Chopin aficionados and to pianists for whom they are a constant source of delight and dread.  This reading had some impressive passages with a few surprises, as well as the occasional imperfection – which you’d expect when dealing with a composer whose music continues to present the finest pianists with executive difficulties, both digital and expressive.

You could find little to carp about with No. 1 in C; smoothly carried off with a welcome urgency, even if I didn’t understand the rallentando across the last bars; a fading dynamic, yes, but not a concomitant decrease in speed.   The following A minor-delayed prelude began very slowly, even for a Lento, but it appeared to move into a more active pace when the melody line had to be coped with.   The scintillating G  Major piece could not be faulted, Raineri’s left-hand semiquaver chains flawless, as far as I could discern.   Equally impressive, the following E minor demonstrated this pianist’s sensitivity to inbuilt phrasing rises and falls, even across a short number of bars; the effect one of spartan melancholy but not over-sensitive.

Prelude No. 5 stayed pretty clear in texture throughout its brief length, but the climactic top F sharp in the third-last bar misfired.   There’s not much new that can be done with the B minor prelude; just maintain the left hand’s dominance of the action and avoid an overdone echo effect at the end – both of which requirements Raineri achieved without effort.   The 16 bars of the well-known A Major work were treated with respect; I don’t know how he achieved it, but the pianist managed the crucial submediant 7th chord without splaying the right hand notes.   The F sharp minor successor enjoyed a compelling reading, the middle register thumb melody carrying successfully with only a few right-hand fioriture clusters in the second half sounding questionable.

The formidable and noble E Major prelude displayed once more the executant’s keen sense of inbuilt shape, with a pronounced caesura right where it belongs at the piece’s 2/3rd point.   Tenth in the series, the C sharp minor prelude flashed past, its nifty descending right hand triplet-plus-duple semiquaver patterns articulated with graceful seamlessness.    As for the B Major bagatelle, Raineri gave this due consideration, not bolting through it but ensuring that slight incidental ornaments could be distinguished. For the pounding G sharp minor exercise, we might have appreciated more vehemence at the opening to prepare for emerging energy in the chromatic top line.   The nocturne-like F sharp Major delight came across with a consistently clear soprano in the first segment and a memorably elegiac final six bars with their occasional isolated, slightly delayed top-note additions.

It was hard to make sense of the E flat minor prelude’s delivery, chiefly because Raineri over-worked the crescendodiminuendo pattern that some editors have imposed across each bar.    We eventually reached the D flat Major Raindrop gem: another nocturne, carried off with placid clarity and gifted with a suitably solid central C sharp minor interlude, the whole following a clear narrative path.  To this point, only the B flat minor prelude found the pianist falter and repeat a half-bar, but his recovery was rapid enough to meld into the general welter of this, the most taxing entity in the entire set.   Possibly, the right hand three-quaver pattern could have been treated with a more percussive attack to add some spikiness to a set of pages that can become a sonorous blur.

No. 17 in A flat  came over with a finely judged character, the top line floating clear of the accompanying repeated chords; the concluding pianissimo reprise over a sustained bass tonic note made an unexpectedly moving oasis.   A slight problem occurred during the F minor work – a simple mis-fingering during one of those downward hurtles of 22 or 17 irregular semiquavers, but the excitement of the sixth-last bar’s vaulting chords more then compensated.   One of the more difficult of these exercises to carry off, it seems to me, is the E flat where the only solution is to practice its leaps over and over until you become either absolutely secure or absolutely fearful.   It’s an ebullient (for Chopin) scherzo and Raineri handled it well with only a few errors in the right hand vaultings.

In the last section of the portentous C minor prelude, the executant opted for a fortissimo dynamic, which I’ve not experienced before but which reinforced the adamantine power of the opening strophe.   The following B flat Major work succeeded flawlessly, an admirable outlining of its simple initial melody finding a splendid reflection in the chromatic dying fall that starts 19 bars from the luminous conclusion.    Just as convincing was the following G minor piece which Raineri infused with impetus and urgency.   Apart from a robust delivery of the penultimate bar’s E flat, the benign F Major prelude maintained the pianist’s success with those happier components of the collection.   And the final D minor prelude was invested with just enough fire, only a few mishaps ruffling the surface, like the missing top F to the first upward-rushing 3-octave scale and a too-careful approach to the climactic two bars of descending chromatic thirds in the right hand.

As a whole, nevertheless, the performance of these challenging preludes, great-  and small-scale sitting cheek by jowl, made for a welcome display of Raineri’s abilities in orthodox repertoire where historic performances are easy to find and compare.   As with each of the few times I’ve heard the Preludes live, some parts capture the attention and imagination more wholly than others.   Yet this young musician has his own specific insights and interpretative mannerisms, more than enough to have made this experience well worthwhile.

Australian composer Christopher Dench composed his passing bells, day for Raineri’s festival,   It’s a furthering (improvement on? elaboration to?) of an earlier work from 2004 called passing bells: night: planctus for piano solo.   The bells being referred to are those that denote the monastic prayer times first established in the Middle Ages and now (post-Vatican II) settled into a series of major and minor observances: Matins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline.  The original work lasted for about 12 minutes under the hands of its first performer and commissioner/dedicatee, Marilyn Nonken.  This later reincarnation is much longer.

Its operating procedure drenches the listener in washes across the piano’s sound spectrum, so the score probably operates on the same principle as the first work where the pianist has to deal with three or even four staves to help both composer and interpreter keep the various tintinnabulation spectra discrete.   As you’d anticipate, bell sounds dominate the proffered sound-world with forays into plainchant – well, melodic material that hovered around a limited range of notes.

The initial impression of chord clusters and repeated single notes persisted for some time; all very suggestive and peaceful, until the inevitable eruption into vehemence.   Dench is not only concerned with the ecclesiastical hours and bells but also with the modern age, viewing both the Middle Ages and our times as ‘catastrophic’.   So this music is both pictorial and intellectual; you can take the bells as invitations to prayer or as funeral knells, the explosions standing in for former times’ trebuchets and modern heat-seeking missiles – the composer leaves you to make what order of it you will.   But he overtaxes minds as feeble as mine with several promises of resolution that abruptly explode into further action, a faux leave-things-hanging device that is unnerving and irritating by turns.   You’re left feeling, as with so much of Dench’s products, that you’ve lost the plot along the way   –  or that you never had much of a handle on it in the first place.  For all that, Raineri’s performance sounded convincing, this performer quite at home with the music’s precise demands in dynamic and articulation.

The night finished in Ginastera’s Piano Sonata No. 1, which gave us much less arcane matter to deal with.   The Argentinian master’s opening Allegro marcato engaged the listener with its pounding, massive full chords in quick succession and a construct of irregular metre to keep you counting, but the effect was of a studied brutality – like a tyro having his way with Bartok’s Allegro barbaro.    The neo-scherzo, a Berg-reminiscent (only in its title) Presto misterioso, gave welcome relief, even if the flirtations with twelve-tone composition methods appeared superficial, and Raineri kept up the initial muffled ambience for some time without much variety.

As far as I can see, an interpreter is left to his/her own pedalling resources in the central pages of the Adagio and this performer took advantage of that liberty with some substantial clashing resonances to brighten up an uninspired movement that whips itself into a frenzy of appassionato excitement before going back to single-note taws.   The Variaciones concertantes-reminiscent finale with its 9/8–alternating-6/16 time signatures pleased for the pianist’s attempts to preserve an initial bass-heavy onrush, but he had to insert a few caesurae, presumably to gather strength for upcoming challenges.   Still, the driving marcatissimo final pages brought this whole enterprise  –  sonata, recital, festival  –  to a rousing conclusion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A bounding lightness

Joyce Yang

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday July 24

                                                                        Joyce Yang

In the first of two programs that she is presenting for Musica Viva, pianist Joyce Yang brought back a lot of memories for those of us brought up through a deliberately inculcated familiarity with 19th and early 20th century repertoire.  She opened Tuesday night’s recital with five of the Lyric Pieces by Grieg, followed by Debussy’s Estampes, then the Chopin Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante as a substantial chaser.

In her post-interval endeavours, Yang gave the Melbourne premiere of a piano sonata by Sydney composer Elizabeth Younans, a work commissioned for this tour by Julian Burnside for Musica Viva; fortunately, the new piece has considerable merit for two-thirds of its length.  And the formal program concluded with Schumann’s Carnaval, handled with splendid authority and sustained insight   –   so much so that, for the first time in many years, you could become fully engaged in the composer’s compressed kaleidoscope of musical imagery, rather than doomed to endure a humourless demonstration of stultifying virtuosity.

You’d think that Yang was opting for an easy opening with the Grieg, especially as only one of the five she chose was unfamiliar.  But there are problems to be found in even the simplest pages, like the Arietta that stands at the entrance to the whole 66 Lyric Pieces. It’s not Wedding-day at Troldhaugen or the March of the Dwarves which are thrilling to play and to hear; but it requires a delicacy in shaping  Grieg’s somewhat whining lyric to ensure that it is sent on its way with winsome appeal.  Here, and in the following Notturno, Yang was barely stretched, although her negotiation of the triplet-heavy accompaniment in the latter sounded rigid, at points turning the piece into a slow waltz.  Yet her right-hand trills spoke with excellent evenness

The unknown (to me) piece Once upon a Time  made a pleasant exercise in contrasts, its outer E minor slow march pages interrupted by a bucolic major key 3/4 dance; nothing complex to it and rich with the composer’s fingerprints but carefully managed here.  The Scherzo suffered from an imbalance in hand weight, as did Puck where the treble clef material did not travel as clearly as it should have over both the arpeggiated and chordal bass accompaniments.

Debussy’s Pagodes brought out Yang’s individuality,mainly through her approach to the many ritenuti/A tempo oscillations which made the first page unpredictable;  for my taste, the longueurs were entertained a tad too much.  But the work progressed clearly enough with very fine definition of layers before the first fortissimo outburst.  In fact, the central problem with this version came at the double climax points which would have gained from more shoulder strength.

It was a slow night in Grenada, the habanera one of the least rhythmically compulsive you would ever come across, but Yang’s singular lightness of approach brightened up the piece’s middle section where the key signature changes to F sharp Major.  It wasn’t just a case of performing avec plus d’abandon but more  finding and delivering a brighter sonority informed by a wry angularity that reflected Debussy’s wayward venture away from the work’s outer haziness.   The pianist had all the notes of Jardins sous la pluie under her command yet the effect was formulaic – not exactly a study but often not that far removed.   You were expecting – well, I was – a good deal more brilliance of timbre in the final pages from en animant jusqua la fin but Yang kept her powder very dry.  Understandable, given that much of these final pages is tamped-down vitality.  Yet even the final splayed chords impressed as over-deliberate.

On the other hand, it was hard to find fault with Yang’s Chopin offering.  The spianato section came over with elegance and discretion, its bel canto lyricism emerging in an effortless, unstudied chain, leading to a mellifluous passage from bar 97 to 110 where the matched pairs of sextuplets faded to a breathtaking, all too rapid chordal coda.   The ensuing polonaise proved an unalloyed delight, full of character and infused with carefully handled rubato   At certain action-packed moments, Yang’s right-hand work gave us some of this night’s most memorable brilliance; for example, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a more bravura account of bars 221-261, the forward surge unstoppable, lucid and without a sign of flashy vulgarity..  But moments like that underlined Yang’s comprehensive accomplishment here, thanks to an admirable fearlessness and what I can only describe as consistent emotional sprightliness.

Younan’s fresh sonata, in three movements, lived up to the composer’s meagre descriptor, amplified by Yang, by opening with blocks of motivic material in quick succession.  Its first movement presented to my ears as a sequence of variations, in that Younan’s initial blocks move into a sequence of events in which the initial shapes can be detected, these events discrete so that you’re aware that another treatment is beginning.  The score exploits the piano’s range and dynamic potential and persists in a vehement volubility.

In the second movement, the composer proposes a deep bass line set against top-of-the-keyboard pointillism.  To Yang, it suggests an astral journey – which is fair enough if you subscribe to a Holstian view of cosmology..  But it’s not all sub-Uranian rumblings and Mercurial scintillations: Younan has a central layer , more complex in its patterns but distinctive for a rising scalar pattern and giving these pages a welcome amplitude of colour to give flesh to their outer reaches.

I found the last quick movement the least interesting part of the sonata.  Jazzy, jerky, with the spectre of Bartok juddering forward every so often, the work seems to devolve into a show-piece for the executant.   Its character presented as less self-assured than its predecessors, being more fitful and self-conscious in its juxtapositions of active bursts.  For all that, Yang gave a devoted interpretation, sustaining your interest in the finer segments and working with diligence through less satisfying stretches.

As for this performer’s Schumann account, here was one of those rare occasions where you could put your pen down and bask in the playing, totally secure in Yang’s vision and her unflappable delivery.  From the opening call-to-arms of the Preamble to the spent exhilaration of the concluding Davidsbundler March, the pianist maintained the pressure, urging us on through each of the character sketches but giving each its requisite space.

You might have quibbled with the over-schizoid nature of Yang’s Florestan reading where the composer’s self-portrait (well, half of one) approached the manic; but there’s no doubt that you can find this duality all too easily in the music itself.   Yang took a no-nonsense approach to the 14-bars’ worth of Chopin, following up with as forceful an Estrella as I’ve encountered, its central syncopated bars more ferocious than expected.

But it was Yang’s gallery-vista approach that moved this performance onto a higher level.  She outlined her take on the composer’s chameleonic personality, complete with detours and abrupt darts off-target, and brought us into her vision with confidence.  Along with this clarity of purpose, Yang also articulated the chain of movements with a spirit-lifting agility, even in the hefty finale with its Grossvater Tanz or ’17th century theme’ lumbering in to represent the Philistines that Schumann fought so zealously.  Unlike a good many other renditions, which make you relieved that the last A flat Major chord has resonated, this one proved elating, a solid piece of work but never stolid.

Yang plays her second program this Saturday, July 28.   In place of Grieg, she will perform three Rachmaninov preludes, including the notorious C sharp minor Op. 3 No. 2.  Replacing Debussy is Janacek’s Sonata 1.X.1905 while Chopin’s double act is sacrificed for Liszt’s Rhapsodie espagnole, which has all but disappeared from view these days.  The Younan Piano Sonata again leads off the evening’s second half and the major work is another Liszt: the B minor Sonata.

 

 

So much to hear

BACH MARATHON

3MBS

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday February 18

                                                                       Chris Howlett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Prize-winner’s bombardment

Andrey Gugnin

Camberwell Grammar School Performing Arts Centre

Tuesday August 29

                                   Andrey Gugnin

Coming to the end of a packed cross-country tour that would cripple most performers, the Sydney International Piano Competition winner for 2016 made his solitary Melbourne appearance at a lavishly appointed auditorium in the city’s private school eastern suburbs belt.   Camberwell Boys Grammar has enjoyed a building acceleration over the past few decades and its Performing Arts Centre auditorium holds a grandiose attractiveness, including an imposing front-of-house space, fairly comfortable conditions for its audiences, and a wide stage which, for this event, had a reflecting screen behind the performer – the sort of thing you see at Selby & Friends recitals or pretty much everything at the Australian National Academy of Music.

The hall also boasts a thick carpet that covers the foyer steps and the interior, with an emasculating loss of resonance as a consequence.  Not that you can do much else in an environment where schoolboys are the natural inhabitants, along with their innate propensities for noise-making.  Not only did Gugnin have to make allowances for a muffling acoustic, but also he was saddled with an uneven instrument –  a Fazioli grand?  –   that showed at its best in this night’s action-packed second half rather than in the staid Bach-and-Schubert opening gambits where the player’s softer passages held little textural interest.  A pity that we couldn’t have heard the school’s own Steinway, but then that company wasn’t sponsoring this tour.

Tuesday found Gugnin working through the larger of the two programs he has been taking on tour, opening with the Bach Adagio in G Major, a transcription for keyboard of the first movement from the composer’s C Major Sonata for solo violin.  This is a worthy settling-down piece, two pages’ worth of little activity that winds up on a dominant chord which took this particular audience by surprise, so that Gugnin was able to move without a ripple into the Schubert D Major Sonata.

Despite the handicap of his operating conditions, the prize-winner made a good deal out of this experience.  He followed an individual path across all four movements, finding a satisfying dynamic interplay across the score by refraining from the over-histrionic, so that the outer movements came across as restrained in temperament, more consistent in atmosphere than you usually hear from young interpreters.  For instance, the usual shift at the Un poco piu lento passages conveyed its message by relying on the modulatory jump in each case, rather than by confronting the listener with a pounding fortissimo.

For the concluding Rondo, Gugnin demonstrated a welcome insight, keeping the temperature low even when the movement reached its higher stages of ferment – the long central G Major episode – and not making a meal of the juxtaposed changes in dynamic enunciation.  Just as impressive work came at the final pages when the composer decorates his perky theme with chains of irrepressible semiquavers, right up to the simple, moving last three bars.   Gugnin showed his grasp of this movement, one that pivots on a touching combination of fluency and unaffected charm, a duality you find in the countryside Schubert, his personality not over-awed by his great contemporary.

Certain sections of the central Con moto pages were carried out with fine control, but here the instrument/hall combination made itself most prominent.  Both opening and closing passages are muted and the pianist was unable to give them room to breathe as his sound deteriorated quickly.  The action-packed middle section fared a good deal better, treated with an impressive impetus but – a trademark of this reading – not hammered home in the two-hands full chord punctuating exclamations.  If Gugnin reserved his power for the Allegro vivace, you could understand why: the scherzo itself has a remarkable buoyancy that surges out at the double-bar half-way through where the pianist blazed into action, pulling back for the simplicity of the movement’s trio, giving here an object lesson in maintaining a melody’s distinctive path over a relentlessly full chordal support.

The night’s second half was almost completely all-Russian, beginning with Shostakovich’s Sonata No. 1 of 1926, a highly impressive piece that is rarely heard because of its relentless physical demands and the unremitting percussive dissonance of its processes.  Here, Gugnin exploded into action with a fierce energy that made a brilliant apologia for a score basically unconcerned with its own portability, one of the young composer’s works that shows no signs of the orthodoxy of coming decades.

Michael Kieran Harvey featured as the odd man out in this recital’s second half, his G-Spot Tornado making a welcome appearance.  Extracted from the Australian composer/pianist’s 48 Fugues for Frank Zappa (which is, in fact, nothing of the sort), the piece is, after a portentous opening apostrophe, a moto perpetuo conceived as a dazzling and brilliantly conceived homage to Zappa’s original.  Gugnin made an excellent business of this toccata, at ease with its syncopations and the simple melody that flashes across the hectic, unstoppable accompaniment.  Although it lacked something of Harvey’s own flamboyance, this version sustained its interpretative grip and burbling effervescence.

Leonid Desyatnikov is not a name that you come across often, if at all.  Born in the Ukraine, he made his name as a film-music composer, then moved to the opera stage and theatre, providing a wealth of incidental music.  Gugnin presented his Reminiscences of the Theatre, seven characteristic pieces that could have come from any minor early 20th century French composer.  None of these bagatelles presented technical challenges similar to those of the two preceding works, but they had an agreable charm, the faster movements very much indebted to bitonality  –  that never-failing gift from Stravinsky to his countrymen.  As well as mainstream material, Gugnin has recorded some recherche Russian material – Arno Babadjanian’s Six Pictures, for instance, alongside both Shostakovich piano concertos  –  but this set of Reminiscences comes pretty close to salon music, albeit a touch more spiky than the usual run.

To end his program, the pianist played the Trois mouvements de Petrouchka, Stravinsky’s 1921 deconstruction of his own ballet for the delectation of Arthur Rubinstein.  Here, Gugnin produced a remarkable demonstration of intelligent virtuosity, the Danse russe much more telling than the customary percussive battering-ram but packed with deftly articulated detail, the player keeping a constant weather-eye out for the occasional close-to-swamped melody.  Both this set of pages and the following Chez Petrouchka came close to ideal in this pianist’s vision, the outlines lucid with some remarkable vaults across the keyboard that helped to explain why this pianist had won quite a few international competitions before he landed in Sydney.

Gugnin made a fine start on the finale, La semaine grasse, notable for a shimmering ripple imitating the string texture that features at the opening to this scene.  The trouble with the piece is that there is too much; where the orchestra offers textural change in the original ballet, this re-imagining preserves too much of the lavish material from the original scene and the piano-writing winds up sounding heavy-handed.  Further, the conclusion to this and the later concert version has a crassness of imagination when compared to the brilliantly achieved conclusion of the actual ballet – an unanswered question that bemused Diaghilev.

By the time Gugnin reached the end of his Shrovetide Fair, I’d had enough and the recital had run well overtime.  However, it completed a highly informative event that let us hear at first-hand what the Sydney jury had seen in Gugnin that singled him out.  I have to confess that the performer’s appearance had me fooled; from the publicity shots, including the one reproduced above, he looks remarkably young  –  possibly a late teenager.   He is, in fact, 30 and has a physical stature that argues for familiarity with gym work.   In the end, apart from his physical presence, Gugnin is  an impressive figure to see at work and obviously has the requisite talent to further a career that is already packed with appearances cross the globe.

 

Lucid and airy

ANGELA HEWITT

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday May 16

                          

                                             Angela Hewitt

The Canadian-born pianist has appeared here under a few organizational banners – Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Impresaria, Australian Chamber Orchestra, and Musica Viva which is sponsoring this latest tour of two programs and a clutch of masterclasses. Oddly, her stellar Bach recordings and live appearances with the Australian Chamber Orchestra don’t rate a mention in the MV program, which is a pity because her readings of the concertos and even a strange Brandenburg No. 5 where she has the solos and Linda Kent’s harpsichord does continuo duty were/are remarkable weddings of soloist and accompaniment.

On Tuesday, Hewitt opened with Bach, of course; you don’t build a reputation like this, with its attendant expectations, and then avoid the obvious; God knows there’s plenty of material to deal with.   For both programs on offer, the pianist is performing two partitas, the big No. 4 in D Major (which is common to both nights), balanced – sort of – on this occasion  by the better-known No. 1 in B flat.  After interval, we branched out into five Scarlatti sonatas, the Ravel Sonatine, and the final solo piano work by Chabrier, his Bouree fantasque.

No short-changing in her Bach, Hewitt played all repeats; like every pianist with sense, she made sure the second time around was more than a simple here-we-go-again exercise. For the familiar B flat Partita, she impressed as always by the clarity of her linear work. Given her instrument’s ability to make life easy, she continues to be most sparing with the sustaining pedal, which makes her load more taxing but fills these pages with a welcome sparkle; even the opening Praeludium with its (mainly) three layers came over with excellent lucidity, aided by a supple dynamic range that avoided heroic clangour.

This clear-speaking delivery continued through the work’s dances, notable for a sturdy Sarabande informed by a gently applied rubato, and as close to ideal as you could expect in the concluding Giga in which the supplementary quavers  enjoyed a burbling subservience to the crotchet melody line – far from the more common and leaden Solfeggietto cross-hand exercise we usually have to endure.

For the D Major work, Hewitt began the Ouverture with an attractive declamatory style that emphasized the key movement rather than the brusqueries of the demi-semiquaver scales and written-out ornaments, before a stunning account of the movement’s latter section that begins with a light-hearted fugue motive before working into a striking polyphonic complex at about Bar 62, a nexus that doesn’t take itself too seriously; in Hewitt’s hands the  bouncy good humour is maintained, particularly through the bass-heavy bars 105 to 109.  The following dances and Aria became intriguing for the executant’s mode of presentation rather than for her technique which was hard to fault: the poised solemnity of the large-scale Allemande where Hewitt made the occasional triplet or pair of them serve as placid disturbances of the regular metre; a sturdy drive in one of the finest Courantes from the composer; a similarly firm impetus in the odd-man-out Aria; the deft folding-in of the Sarabande‘s  opening two-bar question with its lengthy, ornate response; in the Menuet, a simple example of art concealing art in the gentle handling of congruent triple and duple passages;  all capped by a buoyant Gigue where yet again the more active passages of interplay – like bars 16 to 19, or 78 to 85 – delighted for their purity of detail and Hewitt’s remarkable gift of keeping three balls in the air.

The post-interval events began with five Scarlatti sonatas.  Two of them were among the composer’s most well-known: K. 491 in D Major, and the E Major K. 380.  If anything, Hewitt makes these works speak more simply than many another pianist; her chording is less flamboyant or filled out, the ornamentation veers towards spartan, dynamics rarely move below mezzo forte.  The D Major K. 492 enjoyed brisk treatment, a fine contrast with the courtliness of the two better-known sonatas.  And the final K. 24 in A Major came over with plenty of braggadoccio, the pulse maintained throughout without turning towards a martellato effect.  I must admit to being distracted by the middle work in the bracket, listed as ‘Sonata in B Major, K 377’  –  a piece I didn’t know and which proved even more unfamiliar as it was actually in B minor; puzzling about this and doubting my sense of pitch distracted from whatever Hewitt was accomplishing with it.

The Ravel piece also came in for firm treatment.  Hewitt is not disposed to apply washes to these pages and the Modere, despite its lush underpinning figure-work, impressed for a no-nonsense delivery where ppp remained a definite entity rather than a wisp.  The Menuet impressed for the rhetoric brought into play at its central climactic point, while the concluding Anime gave the pianist ample space to show her talent at unflustered dexterity in what amounts to a toccata, albeit a remarkably tautly structured one.  The only quality missing was verve, like the elation you experience when hearing the main motive striking out from an underlying susurrus of semiquavers.

Hewitt has a passion for Chabrier’s piano music, and most of us know too little of it to sympathize one way or the other.  The Bouree fantasque is a formidable show-piece without much substance but packed with excitement and flurries of virtuosity.  This performance was lively enough, if it lacked the punch that you can see in the score; the reading caught fire at the return of the main theme proper after Chabrier has finished with his F major central section and the florid chromaticising he employs to get back to his C minor home key.  The final rousing 24 bars brought this entertaining if unwieldy bonbon to a glittering conclusion.

Hewitt plays her second program on Saturday May 20 at 7 pm.  Along with the Bach Partita No 4, she will play the C minor Partita No. 2.  The rest is Beethoven: Sonata No. 1 in F minor and the Moonlight No. 14 in C sharp minor.