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.

Recital’s insightful first half

STEPHEN HOUGH

Melbourne Recital Centre

April 19, 2016

Stephen Hough (musicavivaaustralia.wordpress.com)
Stephen Hough

Here was one of those nights when it might have been better to leave at interval.  The popular British pianist, on his third solo tour for Musica Viva, is playing a program that has been well honed as Hough has toured with it through minor (and sub-dominant) English centres, France, Taiwan, China, Japan, Belgium, the Barbican, Canada, followed by a clutch of appearances in the United States.  With his final Australian performance here on April 30, Hough will have given this sequence an airing nearly 30 times in ten months – which is putting to one side his many concerto appearances and interpolated recitals with cellist Steven Isserlis.  The man is nothing if not driven to perform and, judging by Tuesday’s audience, he has an enthusiastic following.

True to his reputation for favouring the less-trodden paths of repertoire, Hough began his night with Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, D. 784.   A clean delivery with a firm hand on the middle movement’s Andante direction made this one of the event’s highlights, even if you might quibble with some pauses and hiatus  points in the first movement that admittedly gave some respite to the slow-to-hatch dramatic bursts in this spartan set of pages.  The pianist’s treatment of the finale with its oscillation between overlapping triplets and its seamlessly extended melodic line in the more regular/straight 3/4 interludes helped to underline the message that, with this composer, more is required than just relying on the score to give interest through inbuilt contrasts; Hough treats Schubert as an ongoing narrative where the parts have to be knitted into an intellectual complex.

The following version of Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue impressed even more for the executant’s clarity of texture in a piece where such a quality is often hard to find under washes of pedal clouding.  While the opening pages held interest for Hough’s digital control, his exposition of the chorale with its long sequence of arpeggiated chords complicated by the left hand crossing over, sometimes awkwardly, to outline the melodic line, was remarkable for its authority, the progress of this section fluent and rhythmically sensible.   For once, the fugue capped the triptych, Hough making the later pages almost lucid, even where the action borders on the over-rich in chromatic shifts.  At the conclusion, you were left with the sense of a task accomplished with firm discipline and a brake on any form of excess.

As before interval, two composers featured in the recital’s second half – Liszt, and Hough himself.   His recently composed Piano Sonata No. 3 was commissioned by the British Catholic periodical, The Tablet, to celebrate the publication’s 175th year of operations. Subtitled Trinitas, it has religious connotations beyond its title but the most prominent feature of its nature is its basis in 12-tone row compositional technique.  But you will find only traces of the Schoenberg ethos, let alone style, here and pretty much nothing of anything serial.   Hough bases his row on major and minor triads and the work’s tendency is towards giving these building blocks pre-eminence in their natural state.  The concept is at least as old as the Berg Violin Concerto with its overlapping triads as initial G minor-establishing (for a moment!) material.  Hough’s first-of-three movements, a Lento subtitled ‘Bold, stark’, lives up to its own descriptors and leaves a spacious, clangorous impression.   The middle Allegro, ‘Punchy, jazzy’, struck me as a kind of toccata, one-note-at-a-time passages at high speed punctuated by some chordal breaks.  The last part, an Andante, eventually quotes a hymn – again bringing up memories of the Berg concerto – and also makes use of a high tintabulating punctuating sequence, serving as a kind of decorative motif but wearing out its welcome all too quickly.  Certainly, the flavour in this last segment of the sonata seems to be semi-liturgical. in many listeners’ cases proposing an emotional response; to this listener, however, it seemed a comedown after the harmonic challenges of the work’s earlier stages.

The Liszt bracket contained the first two Valses oubliees, elegantly outlined by Hough, assuredly, but works where the memories summoned up are of gestures and fripperies, lacking anything to feed on apart from a kind of subdued virtuosity and, in the first, that elegiac resonance that Liszt intended to evoke.  Finally came two of the Transcendental Studies: No. 11, the Harmonies du soir extravaganza, and then its antecedent, once known as Appassionata.

Hough made fine work of the first of these, especially when the richly-chorded melody of the Piu mosso emerged triple-piano at bar 38: a fine example of gradually intensifying the dynamic scale.   The No. 10 is intensely demanding and rapid in its figuration; in this case, it sounded over-pedalled and often hard to decipher.  In fact, the pace was so punishingly allegro molto agitato right from the beginning that the concluding stretta simply melded into the work’s pell-mell execution rather than actually raising the energy level.

 

Local voices aired on Richmond Hill

COMPOSER’S CONCERT

Melbourne Composers

St. Stephen’s Anglican Church, Richmond

Sunday April 3

Anyone looking at this concert program before the event would have felt overwhelmed: five composers, seven world premieres, eleven works in all ranging from solo piano pieces, through trios and string quartets, to a full-blown symphony.  As things turned out, the overkill looked more threatening on paper than in actual performance even if, as you might have anticipated, the impact of certain works was less substantial than a few stand-out scores.

Kitty Xiao after para 1
Kitty Xiao

As conductor/host Andrew Wailes pointed out, the musicians who made up the afternoon’s personnel were of mixed abilities: some professionals, some advanced students, some amateurs or amiable musically competent friends.  Further to this, several of the more difficult works suffered from that bugbear of projects that work on volunteers’ good-will almost exclusively: insufficient rehearsal.  Counterbalancing those problems, quite a substantial number of the works presented made congenial listening, if often not offering much challenge to audience or performers.   This easy-access aspect emerged pretty quickly with Kitty Xiao’s Nimbus and Nipper for flute/alto flute, violin and piano where the amiable spirit of Australian post-impressionism loomed large.  At certain points, when the instrumental mesh and harmonic changes were aligned, you also heard echoes of Franck’s chamber works – which is fair enough if your intention is to suggest a combination of aural imagery and weltering emotional activity.  Xiao’s piano part took the limelight in both works for a while but she was more than adequately served by Cameron Jamieson’s violin and the breathy flutes of Jessica Laird.Kitty Xiao

Hana Zreikat’s first offering came in the form of a piano solo, Elan, which employed plenty of common chords in its stop-and-start progress.  You could not find much of a contemporary edge to this composition, pleasing though it was but mainly distinguished by the addition of added notes for an occasional frisson of harmonic colour.

Carol Dickson
Carol Dixon

Three of the premieres followed in quick succession. Carol Dixon’s Piano Trio No. 1, The Dove, made its points in one continuous movement with the best content falling to pianist Natasha Lin; her companions, violin Navin Gulavita and cello Sage Fuller, made an unhappy start with what at first impressed as poorly matched intonation, which then recovered, only to fall prey later to further dislocation.  For a while, you could suspect that these tuning discrepancies might have been caused by Dixon’s adding tension to her harmonic constructs, but no: the unsettling effect came from the playing itself.   Certainly the work followed the environment set up by both Xiao and Zreikat in being amiable in its melodic fluency, predictable through its rhythmic consistency and un-alarming in the actual demands on its interpreters.

By contrast, Sarah Elise Thomson’s fresh String Quartet No. 1 showed attempts to grapple with post-Bartokian musical activity.   Following the one-movement format, this piece showed an enthusiasm for activity, although at its centre lay a lengthy section featuring sustained-note interjections from the upper strings over a repeated pattern from Sage Fuller’s cello.   Gulavita at second violin partnered Matthew Rigby on first and Georgia Stibbard’s viola but, despite the activity, the performance proved to be some rehearsals removed from security.

Rigby proved a strong presence in the succeeding String Quartet No. 1 by Dixon. Subtitled No Stone Unturned, the score followed minor melodic paths for much of its length but showed little sense of parameter-expanding adventure, especially compared with its predecessor in this program.   Acknowledging the influence of Ravel’s and Debussy’s essays in the form, Dixon imposed a fairly obvious structure of returning to and mildly developing her material with a penchant for the sorts of fluttery gestures found in both the French composers’ quartets, but you would need a very secure body of performers to give polish and interest to a pretty predictable piece like this one.

Benjamin Bates adopted the time-honoured three-movement framework for his Symphony No. 3, this program’s largest element in scale and number of participants. While the composer led the double basses in this presentation under Wailes’ direction, he based a fair bit of the symphony’s material on Spanish guitar-inflected melodic scraps, fairly obvious when Bates brought them to the front of the action, but not the most arresting features of the work when considered as an entity.   The three movements ran into each other so that the second movement’s impressive solos for cor anglais and bass clarinet emerged organically from a tautly argued opening Allegro-Presto-Allegro continuum; later, the finale’s attempt at a fugue also emerged from the fabric without any warning.

Some woodwind pitching could have been more carefully managed, the flute pair sounding the most reliable performers from that cohort.  You felt the absence of trumpets from the mix, if only to provide some brisker flavour to the exposed brace of horns, able though these players were.   And confining percussionist Jessica Bird’s contributions to a side-drum removed another source of potential timbral input.  Still, the score has an intriguing energy and a kind of Sibelian brusque lyricism at its best moments, as well as several patches of tedium where the argument loses impetus, as in the fugue which cries out for a tauter delivery than could be achieved with two rehearsals.

As a bracket to this major piece, the program moved back into chamber mode with music by Dixon, Zreikat, Thompson and Xiao.   For her Soldiers’ Suite, Zreikat accompanied herself while singing three songs: Now I Find Myself Hoping which  proved to be a simple pop-tune lyric of some length, in the manner of Adele at her most depressed; Somebody’s Waiting which followed a similar vein of predictability; finally, Enya’s May It Be from the soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.  All of which seemed to be an anomaly on this program where other contributors grappled with the art of composition without resorting to overuse of cliches and sentimental simplicity.

Dixon’s Ocean Oasis I for mixed trio – Laird, Jamieson, Xiao – generated more of the same impressionistic colouring as at the afternoon’s start, this time depicting Norfolk Island. Again, the piece raised no alarms and presented its atmospheric suggestions with expertise: perfect accompaniment for a documentary on the island’s beauties.  Xiao’s Emei, reminiscing about a journey up a mountain in China, turned into a slow waltz, lushly scored with plenty of imitative work for Laird and Jamieson, Xiao’s piano generating an attractive underpinning shimmer in parts.  This was just as suggestive of Ravel as the Dixon String Quartet No. 1, although this time what came to mind was the Ravel Piano Trio especially its final movement’s assertive figuration.  In contrast Thompson’s Riven piano solo, played by Zreikat, showed an adventurous mind at work, what with hitting the piano wood, playing on the strings and occasionally indulging in washes of sustained, across-the-keyboard dissonance, counterbalancing an employment of lavishly arpeggiated common chords.

In the end, the many components of this program formed a kind of arch with smaller-framed constructs, some close to bagatelles, book-ending the central symphony.  The composers themselves deserve praise for the actual physical exercise involved in collaborating to mount this concert and in attracting into service the various talents required: the Nimbus Trio of Laird, Jamieson, and Xiao; the Briar String Quartet of Rigby, Gulavita, Stibbard and Fuller; Zreikat lending her talents to Thompson; and the significant number of well-wishing musicians participating in the Bates symphony.  It’s grass roots stuff and at times rough-edged, but this sort of ad hoc concerted willingness to give  creative voices an airing bears witness to the reassuring fact that at least this particular Melbourne Composers corner of our city’s musical life enjoys good health.

 

 

Going bravely into the lists

CHOPIN

Enrico Padovani

ZDB Classic CD

ChopinCD

A native son of Parma,  educated in that city and Florence, Enrico Padovani has cut a swathe through the various competitions for piano in his native land – Fusignano, Racconigi, Pistoia, Piombino, Riccione, Padova, Moncalieri – winning prizes as both soloist and chamber musician.  Approaching the middle years of his career, Padovani – teacher and performer – has issued this sample of his considerable talents entering a particularly crowded field; most of the works performed on this CD have been recorded times beyond count by musicians of superb, transcendent insight as well as by players who over-estimated their own abilities.

It’s hard to think of a composer whose works have been the subject of so much brilliantly incisive scholarship and investigation for its own sake.  Chopin remains the ne plus ultra for many pianists, his works presenting challenges in their own right as well as in the light of recorded performances by high-profile executants.  Even these days, 165 years after the master’s death, players of all nationalities and abilities grapple with works that range from the near-unplayable to the deceptively simple and straightforward.  As well, Chopin is one of the few composers to have an international competition  – one of the most searching (and often controversial) on the European stage – held in his honour.

Padovani’s choice of material shows a bracing response to the Chopin challenge.  You don’t find the all-too-familiar pieces in this 11-track offering.  The stand-alone popular works – Berceuse, Barcarolle, Fantaisie-Impromptu, D flat Etude, E flat Nocturne – are absent as Padovani goes for the jugular with the Sonata No. 3 in B minor, the four Opus 17 Mazurkas, the non-flamboyant C minor Polonaise and the posthumous Waltz No. 19 in A minor. His only gesture to the well-known comes courtesy of the B flat minor Scherzo No. 2.

The sonata takes pride of place and Padovani approaches it with a firm grasp of its confrontational nature.  Unlike many of his peers, he repeats the first movement’s exposition in a fluent exhibition of technique with a deft mixture of discipline and rubato in the interpretation’s metrical progress.  The development sounds over-muscular, the texture pretty thick; but then, this segment of the work is probably the most problematic and disappointing for any executant, let alone a dispassionate analyst of the movement itself.  In the following Scherzo, for once the actual rhythm is clearly articulated, not the usual meaningless run of catch-as-catch-can quavers meant to dazzle with legerdemain while at the same time puzzling for a lack of structural sense.  Just as impressive in musically informed terms is the movement’s Trio, where the middle voices emerge with appreciable clarity.

It would be hard to cavil at the B Major Largo that opens in brusque majesty, only to fall back into a finely spun melodic paragraph.  As with the preceding movement, Padovani makes several individual strokes in the central section where his use of rubato is both pronounced and well-positioned.  He also shows an enviable tenth-embracing left hand stretch just before the turn back to the movement’s home key.  With the Finale/Presto, this interpretation gives pride of place to the left hand in those places where the right has sequences of downward-rushing scales, an emphasis that robs these pages of some much-needed lightness of texture.  Still, the final blaze into B Major is both well-accomplished and exciting to experience.

Few of the near-60 mazurkas ring recognition bells with the public, except for the early B flat Op.7 and the two used in Fokine’s Les Sylphides ballet. This Op. 17 set are fairly obscure, only the first favoured by many pianists, but none of them is technically challenging to negotiate.  Padovani begins the first B flat piece with a definite rhythmic impetus, albeit restrained in its dynamic contrasts.  The following E minor work succeeds much more pleasingly with a sensitive amalgam of strength and fragility, the left hand drones sustaining a finely-honed melody line that gradually shrinks into itself.  Pick of the set is the ambivalent No. 3 in A flat, Padovani investing its two pages with excellent shapeliness of phrase and sensitive variety of touch: an outstandingly sensible, and coherent interpretation.  The last of the sequence, Lento ma non troppo, shows an individualistic approach with the tempo direction’s last three words informing the chosen pace.  Here is not the mournfully languid meander that many other pianists make of it but a much more insistent creature; its inner propulsion both unnerving and somehow just right as a no-nonsense patina-stripping exercise.

The most sombre of the polonaises, the C minor of Op. 40, holds few moments of virtuosic excitement, unlike its Military A Major companion.  Padovani underplays the work’s tragic connotations, taking a very aggressive approach with the left-hand octave melody-line and giving us little consolation in the A flat Trio where Chopin inserts some actual polonaise rhythmic gestures; here, these passages are given sotto voce before the muffled call to arms makes its re-appearance.  In sum, this is a striking example of how to look with fresh eyes at pages that have been typecast in solid ambient gloom for far too long.

The Scherzo finds the executant using his sustaining pedal to create sound-washes, sometimes effectively, at other stages over-painting the harmonic welter. The work comes to a powerful, dramatic conclusion but the right-hand descending figure that dominates the main theme’s second strophe is often articulated oddly; its notes are all there, but they register unevenly, some weightier in impact than others.  It might be an essay in internal diminuendo each time but the effect is ungainly – a rare disappointment.

Finally, Padovani provides his own encore with the small-scale waltz, a mini-essay in delicacy and the least difficult piece on the CD.  For all that, it makes for an ideal rounding-off after all the preceding pounding vitality, as the pianist gives it a clear-speaking integrity of phrase through a muted dynamic palette that speaks volumes for his powers of musicianship and sensitivity.

He might not be the most eminent name among current Chopin interpreters but Padovani shows us through his enterprise in producing this CD how many-sided, how protean is the Polish composer’s genius, achieving this end with devotion and indubitable craft.