A dry season trifecta

BERNADETTE HARVEY

Musica Viva

Thursday October 1

Bernadette Harvey

The latest in Musica Viva’s direct telecast recitals, this program found pianist Bernadette Harvey performing in a Sydney gallery to a small audience. As far as I can remember from previous MV escapades of this kind, having a live audience is a new move, a sign that what we used to consider as normal could be on the way back. Of course, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall has been spruiking for live audience members over the past weeks but then Adele Schonhardt and Christopher Howlett have been at the forefront of pandemic-time musical activity since the first hit revealed that life for all artists had changed, these two blazing a trail for everybody else to follow – tentatively, in the main, especially considering the talent allowed to lie fallow that emerges in lots of orchestral rehashes and solo instrumental squibs.

No point in getting bitter, is there? Even if the thought of all that salaried talent fallen into quiescence makes you wonder about an absence of enterprise from bodies with pages of patrons and sponsorships, all quite content to show minimal signs of life, leaving real and useful activity up to the MDCH and Brisbane Music Festival’s Alex Raineri. Musica Viva is doing its best, faced with the enforced absence of its usual rota of overseas guests. So Harvey’s hour of performance brightened up an operational landscape that currently depends largely on the drive of three young musicians.

Her program fell into three sections: a completely unfamiliar (to me, if not to you, mainly because I can’t trace a published score or a recorded performance) Second Sonatine by Donald Hollier who stands among the least-performed of this country’s senior composers; a selection of five pieces from Chopin’s Op. 10 Etudes – Nos. 1, 3, 8, 9 and 4; and Alternating Current by the American writer Kevin Puts, which is one of Harvey’s party pieces as she recorded it for the Tall Poppies label in 2011 and on YouTube you can find her authoritative live performance from March last year in Tucson.

Written in 1997, Alternating Current proved to be the most interesting work on this program. Its three movements kept you engaged through their motoric energy and Puts’ mastery of making his material work to fine effect, both in terms of virtuosity and simple emotional messaging. The opening is reminiscent of a toccata – not necessarily a Bach, but more a Buxtehude with its constant changes of pace. This enjoyed a brilliant expounding from Harvey, who showed herself quite aware of the composition’s metrical dispositions and the often relentless digital precision required to swamp the listener in a benign hammering. Despite the brilliance of these pages – an exhilarating updating of Le Tic-toc-choc – I was more taken by the following slow movement with its descending bell-like chords and simple melodic motives – the whole a mono-chromatic canvas in the end where the insistence on a root tonality (E flat? Couldn’t tell for sure because of screen/sound delay and creative camera angles) generated an all-too-appealing immersive web of sonority.

For a finale, Puts went all out in another rapid movement, also something of a toccata but an intentionally bitonal one – each hand playing in the ‘key’ of the preceding movements. I tried keeping track of the matter under discussion but soon gave up because clearly the urgent forward motion was the prime aim. Here, Harvey proved most persuasive, generating full-bodied washes of sound, making light work of the deft syncopations. As with the first movement, you were taken up by the energy and insistence although, thanks to the superimposed tonalities, this finale showed more bite in its dissonances and more variety in its march towards a harmonically satisfying, if orthodox, conclusion.

Hollier’s 1996 Second Sonatine, subtitled On popular themes, runs to four movements and cites themes that everyone should know – if only they were recognizable. But it’s not the composer’s job to make his music over-simple, although Hollier goes some way towards that in his third movement Ayre: Nostalgico, con molto rubato – a rumination on the Lennon(?)-McCartney song Yesterday. Thank God Harvey told us at the end which other sources had been recast.

A choral (?) prelude made for an elegant opening in the slow and stately mode that the title probably was meant to suggest, samples of it discernible in everything of this genre from Bach to Reger. What first impressed you was Hollier’s whimsical mordents in the progress of his melodic line, which was punctuated by quick block chords moving in either direction. Climaxing in a state of quasi-hysteria, the movement covered itself with a dark, slow conclusion. This used Joseph Kosma’s Autumn Leaves, carefully transmuted. A passacaglia followed, but nothing like the big C minor for organ; this was a dance that moved in metre between 5/8 and 6/8 and covered in its freneticism the title song from Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! Although the fluctuating time-signature suggests a bumpy ride, this was a steady set of pages, regularly irregular but well-equipped with clusters and rapid scale-work. And brief.

The Yesterday treatment brought to mind Grainger’s musings on Gershwin, although Hollier was not so tightly bound to his original, deviating from the original and lingering over fragments of the whining melody, like the rise and fall of a 6th at the words ‘Why’d she have to go? I don’t know, she wouldn’t say’. For all the clever loitering, this experience reminded me of nothing so much as the sort of thing you’d hear in an up-market piano bar. Harvey held on to some notes longer than any lounge pianist would dare, and Hollier’s ending sounded disappointingly bland and ‘easy’ – or perhaps he was making a sardonic comment on his material.

The sonatine’s finale, a Fugue: Allegro ritmico, was certainly that and more. Shades of Prokofiev and Bartok proved hard to ignore with loads of cutting harmonic clashes and the fugue’s lines running into each other rather than coalescing into a mellifluous whole. Hollier’s headlong progress came to a sort of stretto climax with hand-smashes across the keyboard, although the whole thing wound up with a kind of fugal flourish as the composer finished dealing with the Toreador’s March from Carmen (or was that just Escamillo’s aria from Act Two?) and Strangers in the Night by Bert Kaempfert. In the end, this unknown piece turned out to be great entertainment and a fine showcase for Harvey’s virtuosity and ready sympathy – a deft reflection from the other side of the Pacific on Puts’ powerhouse construct written a year later.

As a preface to the five Etudes, Harvey spoke of the differences between Chopin and herself, which didn’t lead to many insights, probably because the address seemed diffuse and unsure of what it intended to accomplish. During No. 1 in C Major, the right hand arpeggios proved pretty reliable, although a squeaky top D flat six bars from the end detracted from the work’s fluency. You could find much to like with No. 3 in E Major, even if Harvey showed a tendency to ‘point’ notes too often – lingering in a mini-rubato at melody-disturbing points. By contrast, her handling of the central poco piu animato section was powerful and eloquent in both passion and drive. No. 8 in F gave us a good deal of perky left hand work underneath the semiquaver-happy right hand which again did not maintain absolute accuracy.

You rarely hear No. 9 in F minor, unless the executant is presenting the complete set. Harvey made a persuasive case for the piece’s characteristic restlessness but also found out its declamatory quality, particularly when Chopin gives octaves to the right hand. I don’t know whether a decelerando in the final bars works, but if that’s what you think makes a suitable conclusion, you can only choose to disagree on principle when it’s accomplished with this amount of finesse. Harvey’s decision to wind up with No. 4 in C sharp during which both hands enjoy a thorough workout was successful; here, you could find few flaws in the technical work and she managed to sustain the study’s interest despite the temptation to segmentalise it into a series of two-, four- and six-bar challenges.

Again, thanks to Musica Viva for presenting this event, more worthwhile than many in that I’ve rarely heard Harvey in my time in Melbourne and am probably unlikely to experience her work live in the Light North. Among a plethora of artists with few conceptions about how to interpret difficult music, she has been – and continues to be – a welcome presence that should be exposed more often.

A blessing, lullabies and a prayer

KARIN SCHAUPP

Musica Viva

Saturday August 22

                                                                 Karin Schaupp

‘Schaupp has been a stalwart of this country’s guitar world for close to 40 years: in her own right as a soloist, as a concerto performer with state orchestras, and as a collaborator with musicians like Umberto Clerici and the Flinders Quartet.   On Saturday evening, she presented this no-frills recital from her home with nobody else but a recording technician in the room with her.   Great to see that Musica Viva has embraced the new model of mounting spartan events: one performer providing her own space and not playing too much in case of mental overload in a time of musical famine.

Schaupp’s choice of diet spanned a wide time range, opening with a brace of Scarlatti sonatas and taking in some modern classics of the guitar repertoire, with a side-step to Australian composer Richard Charlton’s Suspended in a Sunbeam, written for this performer last year.    Of course, some of these pieces have become familiar from the artist’s CDs: Scarlatti’s Keyboard Sonata K. 208 (L. 238), Brahms’ Wiegenlied and Llobet’s El Noy de la Mare (the lullabies), Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios by Barrios, and Leo Brouwer’s Elogio de la Danza.   These date from at least a decade ago in Schaupp’s recording career; apart from the freshly-minted Charlton piece, the program’s other unrecorded works came as no surprise:  the BWV 1000 Fugue in A minor for lute by Bach, and an extra Scarlatti sonata, K 322 (L. 483), which was more successful as a guitar transcription than the other sonata by this composer performed here.

After a Musica Viva-lauding address by a ‘suit’ whom I didn’t recognize, being distracted by negotiating volume and access to scores,  Schaupp began operations with one of those remembrances or salutes to indigenous land rights – a gesture that has quickly become a behavioural cliché which could even be well-intentioned but which never fails to annoy because of its tokenism.   Remember those sad white people in Clifton Hill who put plaques on their houses noting that their lots really belonged to the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung, only to have some Aboriginal people knocking on doors and laying claim to those boastful houses?   They were invited in for cups of tea, which says all you need to know about the depth of such acknowledgements.

Both the Scarlatti works were arranged by Schaupp herself and the ‘Adagio e cantabile‘ K. 208 made for an amiable opening with both repeats observed.   My only quibble was the avoiding of the 5-note chord that ends bar 13; well, not so much an avoiding but an impossibility, given the instrument’s low operating level at that point.  The faster K. 322 is better-known among keyboard players and is gifted with one of those trademark Scarlatti passages of courtly play from bar 36 to the half-way point, and again from bar 73 to the end; the harmonic transparency at these points came over with particularly gratifying clarity in Schaupp’s interpretation

Are you uncertain about the provenance of Bach’s works for lute?  Join the club.  Before the Early Music Brigade got under way, Segovia cruelled the authenticists’ pitch by transposing, transcribing and transliterating a good deal of Bach’s music.   He didn’t leave Scarlatti untouched either, making a popularly-used guitar version of the L. 483, the second of Schaupp’s offerings.

The G minor Fugue, well-known in a violin version, is taken up a tone by most guitarists, I believe; Bach might have moved it himself, for all I know.   Schaupp played a pretty clean reading with some passing glitches in bars 44 and 47 but with an otherwise sustained accuracy, reaching a well-prepared climactic point at bar 59 and onward, then realising the smothered tension of the suspensions in bars 93 and 94 before the sudden near-cadenza in the penultimate measure.   Here was a measured interpretation without imposed theatrics or a resonance-besotted bass line; rather, the lines were delivered with balance and dynamic control.

Schaupp’s husband, Giac Giacomantonio, arranged the Brahms piece for her and expanded the song to three verses.   No surprises here, even if the piano accompaniment’s slight syncopations  did not appear to survive the move.   With the arrival of its companion piece by Llobet, we entered the realm of straight guitar music, this work and what followed all original compositions.   Not that there is much more to the Spanish composer’s Catalan folk-song arrangement than there is to the Brahms lied: one page divided into two halves, one work in 6/8 and the other in 3/4, both placid in emotion (as you’d expect).    It was hard to determine why Schaupp seemed so anxious to get off the final D of bar 6, or why the lower notes of the thirds that end bar 5 didn’t resonate.   But then, I didn’t register whether or not they appeared at the bar 7 repetition.   A simple piece, but a pleasure to come across something which takes into account the instrument’s potential for colour and chord spacing.

With Brouwer’s two-movement Elogio, Schaupp jumped into a contemporary stream; even though the work dates from 1964, the Cuban composer speaks an adventurous language which takes dissonances in its stride. at odd points verging on twelve-tone writing although pedal points and the first movement’s Major 7th characteristic argues for a tendency towards a tonal centre.   The executant employed plenty of rubato in the opening Lento, which is a kind of tribute to dance in its juxtaposed flashes of motion and near-stasis, the whole comprising a mobile core surrounded by pairs of ten bars showing relative quiescence. 

Brouwer’s second movement obstinato deals, like the first, in gruppetti, but here much more aggressively.   The entire movement hurtles forward, notably in the central Vivace in 2/4 which reaches a climax in a vehement repeated rasgueado chord before returning to the rapid, metre-changing material that began the movement, followed by a vivace coda. Schaupp displayed an excellent command of this demanding work, at ease with its many  jumps in emotional and technical content, building an impressive structure in each movement while showing no hesitation in vaulting between Brouwer’s juxtapositions of the frenetic with one-line meditation.

Charlton’s work takes its inspiration from a 1994 Carl Sagan speech about the Earth and its position in the cosmos.   The Australian composer subtitles his piece Thoughts on the ‘Pale Blue Dot, as photographed by Voyager 1, and he interpolates in the music a text of his own composition with two brief Sagan excerpts.   Charlton gives his performer (guitarist and speaker in one, preferably, as here) leeway to pronounce the words over pauses or repeated patterns; Schaupp, the work’s dedicatee and commissioner, showed a reassuring ease with the score.   A good deal of its progress is spasmodic, the accompaniment to the text tersely episodic but hard to take in because the words get in the way.  Charlton inserts two passages where the speaking stops and the musical content presents as more sequential and lyrical.    You come across some moving passages, as when the composer returns to lyricism after the speaker comments on the ‘cosmic dark’ of our universe, and at the work’s end where the last chords present an affirmation of our small-scale existence on the rim of infinity.

Barrios’ tremolo study seems to be a rite of passage for every aspiring guitarist but it has an underlying sweetness of melody that complements the middle fingers’ exercise work.  I liked Schaupp’s interpretation which gave a necessary stress to the middle-range arpeggios – the tune, if you like – rather than belting out the bass dotted minims that open nearly every bar, or over-emphasizing the efficiency of her top tremolo.   Mind you, she had given us her view of the work in a prefatory talk, finding a ‘prayer’ in this music.  Which may well be the case, if only for the consolatory turn to E Major at bar 56 and he ‘Amen’ coda at bar 72.   Certainly, it brought this brief recital to a satisfying conclusion: rounding out a trip from the firm benediction of a brilliantly constructed fugue to the touching vision of an old woman asking for alms  –  all too relevant a backdrop to this year of disasters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

All clear

BACH TO BACH

Calvin Bowman

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Sunday April 12

                                                                  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

                                                                     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

                                                                   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

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

                                                                  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

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.