Much of a muchness


Amir Farid

MOVE Records MD 3380


A tribute by local pianist Amir Farid to one of the significant figures in modern Persian/Iranian music, this is an album which holds a limited fascination, mainly because it speaks of a world that most of us will never encounter.  Not that Persian music is a completely unknown quantity; I can recall hearing Court music at an Adelaide Festival many years ago and any listener can easily gain access to the nation’s traditional and folk music at the flick of a Google switch.

Javad Maroufi (1912-1993) attempted to fuse his country’s music with that of Europe: a hard task when compared with his predecessors in that endeavour as most of them were by birth entrenched in the European tradition.   Maroufi’s education embraced both worlds and his piano music shows the way in which he tried to craft a language that spoke to listeners in both tongues.

Farid begins with Armenian Rhapsody, a soulful piece with a B minor tonality that doesn’t stray far from closely related keys.   A suggestively Oriental melody enjoys a straight common chord arpeggio underpinning and, in a treatment that quickens the tempo, Maroufi uses  a dulcimer effect in the right-hand, imitating the santur  –   a cimbalom that is common to pretty much every country in the region from Turkey to India.   The composer faces the same problem faced by every writer using folk-songs: what can you do except play the tune louder or softer, as Tchaikovsky did with his little fir-tree?  The problem here is that, because of the unadventurous harmonization,the melody soon palls.

Fantasie follows the same pattern although the melodic content is more interesting and varied – well, there’s more of it – but the harmonic support is just as staid with no changes offered from a predictable series of underpinning chords.  The santur imitation is heavily employed here.   Still there are modal deflections, including a recurring flattened second that contributes some much-needed colour in a none-too-atmospheric ambience.  Golden Dreams is one of Maroufi’s most well-known pieces and it has been subjected to a myriad arrangements.   After a burst of semi-improvisational-sounding introduction, the simple tune – a 6/8 lilt – begins with an Alberti bass underneath.   Farid gives it interest by his maintenance of the work’s underlying melancholy and by investing as much dynamic variety and pliability as he can in a construct that is easy to assimilate, no matter what your language.

Chargah-e-Esfahan strikes a heroic, quasi-Lisztian pose at its opening but quickly reverts to the by-now natural status quo.  A further  burst of action leads to a central section where the melody is interrupted by some flashy scale-work, but the piece seems to be an amalgam of segments, not at all difficult to decipher; some of them have a passing resemblance to folk-dances from further afield than Esfahan.   But Maroufi is concerned to end as he began with the same decorated melody returning to finish, with a final flourish of octaves that irresistibly recall Brahms and Liszt at their most ersatz Hungarian.

Rumi is the shortest piece on the CD; a brief musical vision, I suppose, of the 13th century Persian poet and mystic whose work underpins his homeland’s culture and those of many neighbours.  Any difference to what preceded it on the disc totally escaped me.    Jila’s Fantasy refers, I think, to one of the composer’s daughters and begins with an E minor melody in dulcimer mode; followed by a quicker movement which seems dependent on a simple descending scale and plenty of triplet passages, the opening melody later emerging in transmuted form.  Another tune follows with more obvious modal inflections. Kuku is the longest work on the disc, but it breaks no new ground.  A tune that could be popular/folkloric in origin is given concordant treatment, as well as the all-too-familiar dulcimer/santur oscillating effect.   By this stage, the cupboard seems to be bare; Maroufi makes no effort to give his works any chromatic spike or rhythmic variety. Indeed, you feel that much of this music is suited to pianists of much less talent than Farid; a fair bit could be sight-read without stress.

The five Preludes owe much in atmosphere to Chopin, but not exclusively so.  There is a repeated passage in the first E Major one  that brings to mind effortlessly Schubert’s Standchen and the over-use of sequences in thirds is a Romantic piano trope of the easiest kind;  and the santur device appears  in the piece’s coda.  As it also does at the opening to the next F minor prelude.  But by this stage, the sequences and chord progressions were so predictable that I could play along with Farid, the score for the most part not needed.  The third in the series evokes suggestions of the Chopin D flat Nocturne but without its melodic adventurousness and avoidance of cliche.   A burst of aggression in the centre defuses into dulcimer-work before a return to the first material.   No. 4 in F sharp promises an original touch or two with its opening motive but cannot avoid slipping into the predictable; and, by this stage, those transient heroic flourishes are wearing pretty thin.  The last B minor begins with a deft modal turn or two; then, when the development begins, it reverts once more to a predictable modulation pattern.

Concluding the disc are two short lyrics: Pish-Daramad-e-Esfehan and Sari Galineh.  The first, Prelude on Esfahan (Isfahan) seems to be a well-known tune that Maroufi set in a more brisk arrangement than most others I’ve heard, here splendidly carried off by Farid.. The last work might refer to a village in Azerbaijan but it follows the same pattern as its companion with a few tricks of truncation at the end of phrases.

It’s a set of pieces, in the end, that present no problems – to us or to Farid, who has absolute mastery of the contents.  But, compared to what we have seen him accomplish in the Benaud Trio, as a solo recitalist and in concertos, this is not very challenging matter; rather, an Iranian Album for the Young.   You can appreciate the point that Maroufi is straddling two stools and what he achieves in his efforts is not to be derided.  But, in a world used to the folk-song settings and utilizations of Bartok, Kodaly, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Grainger, Copland, even Berio, it seems that the Persian/Iranian pianist-composer was inclined to content himself with the use of too great a formulaic approach to his compositional constructs; at least, these piano ones.   A pleasant enough collection, but a little goes a long way.






Over the top, down the other side


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday September 10


                                                                             Shunske Sato

A simple enough program – three works from the Romantic period, so to speak – but the realization was disappointing, to say the least.   Guest violinist/director Shunske Sato began his concert with the ABO as though he were directing Il Giardino Armonico in Vivaldi – rushes and retentions, louds abruptly juxtaposed with softs, bite and sweetness mixed in after each other.  But where the Venetian master profits by a passive/aggressive chameleonic approach, Mendelssohn quite simply doesn’t.   Neither does the Grieg of the Holberg Suite.   I’m not that convinced that the Grieg of the Slatter does, either, but that’s a story for another day.

Sato took the leader’s role in the Mendelssohn String Symphony No. 3: one of those transparent adolescent pieces of exemplary craftsmanship that the composer completed as homework for his teacher, Carl Zelter.   The initial Allegro has a quasi-fugal shape, including plenty of imitative work for the two violin bodies.   In this performance, the firsts ruled, led from the front with a vehemence that would have amazed the composer, if not appalled him.   From the opening bars on, fluency was out the door, replaced by a welter of swoops and surges, massive dollops of ferment followed by sudden vaults back to murmuring softness.   The central Andante suffered less from this push-me-pull-you approach but the final movement made a reversion to the initial aural juggernaut.

It could have been dazzling, but with another piece – one less formally lucid and free from the strait-laced directness, without a wasted note, that this short score displays.  You were left wondering what this sprucing-up was meant to achieve.  Frissons of shock for the musically bourgeois?   A re-appraisal of the 12-year-old’s emotional depth?  A desire to set the mood for this entertainment?    The effect was of a muddle, as though the original clear lines had been thrown into disarray;  the ABO strings carried out their roles with enthusiasm, but the small symphony’s rationale as a demonstration of lessons learned was obliterated by this look-at-me approach.

The personnel numbers for both the symphony and Grieg’s suite – 6,6,4,4,2 – were sufficient for the task, if the second violins made a subsidiary force most of the time, positioned on the right side of the stage so that their instruments faced the back wall.  Yet with the whole group in full cry, you were hard pressed to point to many moments of clarity.  The Grieg Prelude was overplayed, given too much heft for its congenial buzzing stream of semiquavers; the following Sarabande showed that, in Sato’s interpretative world, the portamento is alive and well, as is the disturbingly long pregnant pause.   In the Gavotte pages, the Musette emerged as a welcome oasis: regular in metre, sprightly in its phrasing, gaining much by not encouraging extra weight in the drone bass.  For the Air, Sato led from the front, urging his forces on with what sounded like impatience, at points ahead of his firsts cohort who responded quickly enough but appeared to be taken by surprise at their director’s rubato.

Sato’s duets with Monique O’Dea’s viola punctuating the Rigaudon came across with the necessary vitality, if the lower voice sounded somewhat muffled, but the full-orchestra passages were heavy-handed.   Still, this weight exertion had been a consistent feature of the whole interpretation, particularly at cadence points – both half-way marks and concluding bars – where the ritenuti were laboured to an irritating point time after time.

Saturday evening’s second half was dedicated to the Paganini Violin Concerto No. 4 in D minor.   Sato’s distinction in this repertoire is that he plays on gut strings, thus following the period requirement and giving you a sound that the composer himself would have produced.   The ABO’s artistic director, Paul Dyer, conducted an orchestra with a full complement of brass, woodwind and two percussionists on timpani and bass drum; Dyer rather awkwardly took over the function of triangle player for the third movement Rondo.

You could find certain aspects to admire in Sato’s reading of this work.  The high melodic lines on his E string carried ringingly throughout; the more concordant double-stops, as at Letter B of the first movement, proved to be authoritative and true; ditto the tenths that first appeared 7 bars further on; another purple patch followed after Letter D.   The more chromatic passages in thirds failed to impress for purity of articulation; ditto some of the octave and saltato work; but then the entire section in 6/8 proved remarkably fine.   This oscillation between the excellent and the fair enough continued for much of the opening Allegro, capped by a cadenza of unknown provenance and some vulgarity.

By eschewing the delights of metal strings, Sato also missed out on the strikingly brilliant passage work characteristic of the Accardo, Ricci, and even the early Grumiaux recordings where the rapid-fire technique-taxing passages make an indelible impact, not to mention the harmonics interludes which in Sato’s performance were pretty faint by the time they reached the back of the Murdoch Hall.

The central Adagio enjoyed a sympathetic airing, but then it’s a close-to-uninterrupted lyrical gift for the soloist after the introductory 16 bars and there is little wriggle-room except to play it as written.    As for the galant finale, Sato enjoyed his work right up to the last theme statement at Letter M; I must confess to being relieved to reach the finish.  The technical display was satisfying to watch, especially when it succeeded fully, but you missed any sense of bouncy jauntiness, any personality; the movement was a sustained effort in display.

Now, it would be foolish to expect no emphasis on physical execution in a Paganini concerto; the greatest violinist ever had no compunction about setting himself ridiculously difficult hurdles to overcome and his reputation depended greatly on his genius at making the violin do the apparently impossible.   For all that, Paganini was a serious composer and a work like this D minor concerto is formally exact, developed in perfectly orthodox manner and, if the soloist occupies the greatest focus of the limelight, that’s integral to the piece.   Yet it has to be negotiated carefully, with consideration that its demands don’t twist its shape.   Sato’s treatment occasionally took metrical liberties as he gave himself plenty of space to leap into a problem, then also took his time over a piece of lush lyricism.

Dyer’s orchestra was overblown to an almost painful point in the tuttis, the brass and percussion combination taking over at all the loudest moments, the three trombones over-encouraged to a ludicrous degree; in fact, the strings needed to be at least double in number – and a bit more – to offer any balance to the mix.   The conductor made an active figure, gesturing voluminously at any group or individual who had the main melody, bouncing from leg to leg in the Rondo, sharing a laugh with the audience at a Harpo Marx moment in one of the cadenzas.   I think it’s fair to say that, if you’re in charge of the orchestra in a Paganini concerto, you’re really a cipher; the soloist gets, and deserves, all the attention.   The conductor’s job is to spearhead the full orchestra interludes – and they play themselves – but mainly to keep the soloist’s accompaniment supple, following his/her lead and, above all, staying in the background.  Like a surgeon, your first duty is to do no harm.

Sorry, but I came away from this night dissatisfied, unhappy with the interpretations offered of all three program constituents, wishing that the orchestra had stuck to its Baroque last rather than making forays into a period outside its expertise.



Wineing the ghosts of yester-year


Kreutzer Quartet

Move Records MD 3371


Kreutzer Quartet


This CD consists of four string quartets composed between 1964 and 1975 – the heyday of contemporary Australian composition – coming from four once-important names: the Melbourne music critic Felix Werder, Sydney visionary Nigel Butterley, leader-of-the-pack Richard Meale, and returned expatriate Don Banks.  The performers are an ensemble new to me; British in origin, it would seem, and with a respectable discography of modern British and American music, although this particular CD seems like a well-meant stretch from their usual field of operations.

The performances are vehement and splendidly sharp in detail, nowhere more so than in the earliest work, Werder’s String Quartet No. 8 – Consort Music; one of the composer’s 12; to my shame,  I’m struggling to remember a live performance of any of them.   Immensely fecund, Werder did not get much of his large output recorded, so this reading comes as a chance to fill in at least one gap in our knowledge.   I used to own a World Record Club LP which contained  No. 6 in the composer’s catalogue,  performed by the Austral String Quartet; unfortunately, one of its companion pieces was Butterley’s Laudes, which  took my attention away from its companions –  both the Werder work and Dorian Le Gallienne’s worthy four Donne settings.

This Consort Music begins with arresting discords, scrapes, glissandi – incidents, really – and proceeds to follow an inscrutable path of hot and cold action that at times is static and remote, then rorts through passages of disjunct violence; at times, you suspect that the organizational field is 12-tone, but the usage of glissandi and a few patches of clear repetition make you suspect that possibility.   Whatever the case, the work is often repellently active: ideas piled on top of each other, varied modes of articulation superimposed, a few wisps of motive-melody treated with ironic wistfulness before being hurled aside for the next eclat.   I’ve listened to it on and off for about a fortnight and it retains its secrets – although it is emphatically a product of its time, one where local writers were keen to embrace the brave new world of post-Webernian composition, fusing the sound-production trickery with Schoenberg’s assertiveness of voice.  As far as I can tell without a score, the Kreutzers do this one-movement piece good service.

Butterley’s 1965 quartet, the first of his four, is in two movements and the first is perceptibly 12-tone in its initial material and, for the most part, slow-moving and meditative with most of its dynamic coming not from decibel strength but from contrapuntal interplay – waiting for a line to enter as a complement or following a strand in a field of Nebenstimme backdrop.  T he second part opens with a fortissimo free-for-all without bar-lines, although the cello is the organizational fulcrum.  Here, Butterley attempts to embody the opening of Henry Vaughan’s The Revival:

‘Unfold, unfold!’ Take in his light

Who makes thy cares more short than night.

In fact, in its later stages, this movement suggests a spiritual awakening or epiphany through slow-moving homophony/chorale motion, jagged bursts of solo flight as striking as affirmations of belief, and a near-cessation of action at the work’s end where the top line is still left inquiring despite the accomplishment of an emotional peace.  This work is, despite its central eruption, more orthodox than its predecessor on the CD, but its intellectual trajectory is much more accessible, the composer’s language harnessed to a discernible course.

Richard Meale begins his String Quartet No. 1 with aggressive sustained, clashing chords that lead to a sequence of variations.  As with the Werder work on this CD, the emphasis falls on the event for its own sake as timbres and attack modes alternate to signify new material, or new treatment.  The environment is unrelentingly contemporary, with passages that move slowly in a dream-world alongside spiky angularity, broad swathes of sustained discordant work for all lines.  It’s an alternation of worlds that both interests and irritates; you sense that the instrumental discourse is controlled and directed but the matter is so diffuse in its presentation that assimilation is difficult.   Meale’s second movement, far away, has the players seated with their backs to the audience, distant from each other at the back of the performing space or stage; a debt to Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 2 which has the intention, by physically separating the executants, of making it seem as though we are hearing four different pieces.  Meale’s second movement soundscape is slow, loaded with harmonics and long single notes underneath this upper scintillation.   The first movement’s studied activity has disappeared, replaced by a placid landscape of pointillism: a remarkably effective farewell to modernism because, after this piece, the composer moved to tonality with results that disconcerted a good many of his admirers.   The Kreutzers negotiate both halves of this work with equanimity, giving vent to the opening segment’s oscillating brutalism and close argument, then taking pains to give space to the second part’s calm juncture of pinpricks and stasis.

The String Quartet by Banks is the composer’s only work in the form, written during his time at the Canberra School of Music and a strictly controlled work in its first five minutes where the writing is acerbic, almost to the point of gratingly doctrinaire.   Luckily, the composer’s whimsy emerges, the academic stringency loosens and, when he quotes his opening strophes near the 10-minute mark, the effect is to show how genial the work’s atmosphere has become.   Now there is room for hints at lyricism, even sentiment, interspersed by the odd abrupt wriggle, as in the section where the first violin follows a melodic line in harmonics while the cello bubbles with slight menace below it.  The basic material doesn’t appear to have changed; its manipulation certainly has and, one outburst reminiscent of the opening pages apart, Banks stays in nocturne mood to the end with its haunting F-Fsharp-F cello repetitions fading to black.  Of all four quartets, this one is the least difficult to follow as an organic construct and the performers are comfortable with its clear-cut requirements which, even if it is the most ‘modern’ work here, are comparatively conservative.

No, string quartets don’t tell the whole story of the renaissance in Australian music that came with the 1960s but this representative sample offers an intriguing study in approaches to the form; how tradition was adopted, discarded, mutated by these composers whose voices – apart from Butterley, who is still living – have been largely forgotten.  Thanks to the Kreutzers, we can hear resonances of some decades that were full of vigour and enterprise, when the music world in this country was smaller and new work was greeted with unusual readiness and an almost compulsory approbation.




One out of three?


Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

Saturday September 3


Ralph-Vaughan-Willia_60619a - Copy

                                                      Ralph Vaughan Williams


It’s a fraught business, picking masterpieces, and trying to do so when treating music of more recent times presents substantial difficulties.   Most of us would not argue with John O’Donnell and his Ensemble Gombert when they selected Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor as the opening to this ambitiously named concert.  The work is much loved in the English-speaking world for its serene fluency, a sort of inevitability that takes you back across centuries of self-regarding English church music to the magnificent assurance of the Tudor masters.

Expanded slightly for this occasion to twenty voices, the group produced a perfectly satisfying reading, with a splendidly full interlocking of voices at the great double-choir moments: the opening to the Gloria and its Cum Sancto Spiritu pages, both the Cujus regni and Et vitam venturi from the Creed, those seraph-suggesting Osanna antiphonal strophes, and the spacious breadth of the last page’s Dona nobis pacem pleas.  In the best British choral tradition, the four soloists proved equal to their tasks, carried out with care and no attention-grabbing quirks; the only glitch I detected came in the last exposed tenor solo of the Agnus Dei where the high G sounded strangled.

Hugo Distler’s Totentanz is an impressive construct  . . .  but a masterpiece?   It could be, but the choral components bear only part of the score’s weight.   The work is a real Dance of Death  –  a voluble character who invites a range of representative individuals to give themselves up to the inevitable.   Starting with an emperor and working through the social ranks to a new-born child,  Death orders each to join the dance, answering their pleas for mercy/understanding with an unanswerable response concerning what each of the condemned could have or should have done before facing the Judgement.

This is conducted in rhymed spoken dialogue, the source Johannes Klocking who shaped his verses for Distler’s use.   The choral contribution comprises a group of 14 Sayings, aphorisms by Angelius Silesius from his The Cherubinic Pilgrim of 1657, the ones that Distler chose all commenting on the coming interchange between Death and his newest victim.   After a fashion, these spruchen serve as off-centre chorale-preludes, proffering brief statements about the condemned one’s condition or failing(s).  The problem is that DIstler’s settings, apart from the bookends, are truly aphoristic – no sooner begun than over – which makes it hard to find a consistent field of operations from the composer.  The choral writing is challenging for its application of dissonance, but the briefness of Distler’s statements has the impact of diffusing any compositional personality.

O’Donnell had one singer reciting Death’s lines and shared the roles of bishop, physician, merchant, sailor and the rest around his singers, who coped with some stickily consonant-rich German quatrains quite well, if a few of the nouns and verbs were transmuted in the process.   Yet, at the work’s conclusion, despite the encircling and infiltrating effect of the music, the greatest impression is made by Klocking’s stanzas with their no-nonsense self-evaluations and insistence.

Petr Eben’s Horka hlina or Bitter earth is an early work from 1959-60 when the composer was 30.   It consists of a setting for baritone (not an over-taxed role), mixed choir and piano, of poems by Jaroslav Seifert, the Nobel Prize-winning Czech poet who produced these nationalistic verses in 1938 as his country faced Nazi invasion.   The imagery is emphatic and repetitious – a bayonet, a painted jug, grapes/flowers/grain/stones and pebbles – and the settings are either stentorian or folk-style sentimental.   Both outer movements – Song of the Men and Women, and Song of the Poor – have voluble piano accompaniments, here performed by O’Donnell.   Streams of powerful virtuosity introduce and sustain chorus work that is declamatory and full-blooded.  The central piece, a mainly a cappella Song of the Homeland, has a quieter ambience and more lyrical melodic content. But on one hearing – and I could find no recordings of the work – it is hard to enter into evaluative detail of worth.    A masterpiece?    I think Eben would have proposed others among his works more qualified for that title.

Nevertheless, the Gomberts’ performance of this and the Distler work, with the participants coming down from the altar to the front of the chapel pews, proved highly persuasive, particularly the ensemble’s mastery of Seifert’s texts in the original Czech.


Talent to spare


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday August 14


David Fung

David Fung

Nothing but Mozart in this latest subscription series concert.  Well, almost; somewhere along the way, Australian writer Nicholas Buc’s new Shadow Dances put in a brief and not too painful appearance, even if the pacy score stuck out in this context like an intellectual in the current Senate.   But artistic director of the MCO, William Hennessy, was obviously relishing his Mozartian commitment as he led his young musicians through the Serenata Notturna, the Symphony No. 29 in A, and supported David Fung in two early Piano Concertos:  No. 11 in F Major and No. 14 in E flat.

Opening with the serenade, Hennessy took on mini-Orchestra 1 duties with Courtenay Cleary, viola Merewyn Bramble and double bass Emma Sullivan.  The performance of the first two movements proved exemplary: balanced in phrasing and attack, well-organized dynamically and infused with the welcome sense of a unified ensemble at work.  In the final multi-sectioned Rondo, Hennessy allowed his group a certain amount of licence in tempo torques, but not to the self-indulgent extent that other ensembles go in for.   More to the point, the MCO players were well prepared for the alterations.   What I (eventually) missed were the timpani that should form part of the work’s sound complex.  Yes, the part is not an exciting one and any tyro could perform it at sight, but it does add an edge to the outer movements, especially in the pizzicato bars 5-6 and 11-12 of the opening march’s second part, which is where I first noticed that the drum sound was absent.

Buc’s piece followed, a bagatelle that began as an active Latin-American dance with lots of snap and bounding action.   The work moved from tango to tango, as far as I could tell; the promised detours to different dance beats and major/minor contrasts passed me by, mainly because I was expecting the changes of pace to be more marked, more obvious to distinguish.  Then, the piece ended before any re-orientation had set in.   My fault for trying to over-analyse a happy frippery whose function was primarily to entertain.

David Fung gave an incisive reading of the F Major Concerto, a work you would be lucky to hear once in a double-decade.  His Mozart is no limpid aristocrat but a vital, even prickly individual with a turn for the idiosyncratic, like the Beethoven-heavy left-hand chords for the soloist that come out of nowhere in bars 82 and 86 of the first Allegro, and the oddly unsettling shape of the first two phrases of the Larghetto‘s main theme.   Fung made interesting work of each paragraph, notably in the solidly argued initial movement but what impressed most was his fusion with the MCO; he’s an ideal soloist in his awareness of where he fits in to a concerto’s framework, which made his merging into the score’s activity after tutti passages and cadenzas a model of responsibility.

Even better came with the E flat work; but then, it’s more engaging in its material.   Fung raised the aggression level slightly so that his initial entries came across with energizing brio.   Still, his legato passage work proved admirable – evenly paced and set out with care for its crescendo/diminuendo potential – and throughout this and the preceding work his ornamentation was worked into the fabric with a sensibility that would have done credit to a player many years his senior.   Of special note was Fung’s account of the first movement cadenza – Mozart’s own?  – where the brusque power of the preceding development came into a kind of heightened focus.   Across the whole work, Fung displayed an authority and decisiveness that made even the main body of the four-square finale a feast of elegantly contoured articulation.

Hennessy’s account of the splendid symphony was all the more welcome for the absence of first-half repeats in the outer movements and the Andante; yes, there is much to be said for the formal and spatial balance these provide, but they seem unnecessary in a work as well-ploughed as this one.   The MCO strings made a fine showing here, even if the body could have done with another viola to reinforce Bramble and her solitary colleague.   But a significant distraction here – and in the concertos, for that matter – came from the two horns who were positioned very close to the Murdoch Hall’s back wall and who performed with resonant gusto, more than suited many pages of this music, especially as much of their content is reinforcement, not real and intended dynamic prominence as in bars 171-2 of the K. 201’s concluding Allegro.

A generous collection of masterpieces


Selby & Friends

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

November 25

I’ve not seen or heard a Selby & Friends recital for some time; renewing acquaintance, the most obvious change has been in audience size.  From the years when numbers were thin at Melba Hall, patronage has swollen to the point where seats are at a premium because the Edge space last night was sold out.  Maybe people were attracted by an all-Beethoven program; perhaps the combination of Melbourne Symphony Orchestra co-concertmaster Dale Barltrop, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s principal cello Timo-Veikko Valve and Selby’s brave, polished pianism made an exceptionally attractive proposition.  Those music-lovers who managed to hear this recital were treated to a bracing tour of achievement peaks from the composer’s middle period.

Kathryn Selby, Timo-Veikko Valve, Dale Barltrop (image:
Kathryn Selby, Timo-Veikko Valve, Dale Barltrop (image:

Putting her guests to best use, Selby programmed a sonata for each, framed by two piano trios – one that’s almost not there, the other a trail-blazing masterwork.   In terms of substance, the No. 12 Trio offers little: one movement, an Allegretto that consists of a simple minuet, soon over and leaving not much impact.  A curtain-raiser, then, but one with a muted vivacity, particularly the piano part which holds the lion’s share of the (admittedly brief) action.

Beethoven’s final violin sonata, No. 10 in G Major, comes as a relaxation of tension after its famous predecessor, the A minor Kreutzer and follows that irregular oscillating pattern of power and placidity in the composer’s output – the jocund B flat Symphony between the Eroica and No. 5 in C minor, the rollicking alla tedesca Piano Sonata No. 25 sitting between the deeply-felt A Therese and Les Adieux pieces, that amiable Op. 74 Harp String Quartet sitting between the voluble final Rasoumovsky and the terse, unsettling F minor.  For all its approachability, the last violin sonata has not appeared regularly in chamber music programs, not as often as the Spring or C minor favourites.

Commentators have found a sort of farewell to arms in this work which comes from the centre of Beethoven’s middle period but which was, as a form, ignored by the composer from then on.  Selby and Barltrop performed it with an unfussy relish, both well-matched in the question-and-response opening strophes and maintaining a calm path through even those pages that tempt most to declamation.  As with all three major works on this night, the players had searched out a mode of operating that sprang from the score’s possibilities; rather than the usual smash-and-grab display of temperament, this was a considered, mutually respectful interpretation, riveting in passages like Selby’s negotiation of the low-lying chords and octaves that support the Adagio‘s opening statements, and later in the interlocking cadenzas of the finishing Allegretto where the usual flashiness was avoided and the work’s sinewy power spoke for itself.

The most familiar of the cello sonatas, the middle No. 3 in A Major, proclaimed its intentions from the start as well.  Timo-Veikko Valve outlined the unaccompanied first melody with restraint and the two brief cadenzas that tail each sentence were made to count as integral to the preliminary statement, rather than being tossed off as flourishes. When the movement proper began, both performers set a steady pace – Allegro, but not too much, as the direction requires – and at every turn you heard something new; not necessarily unexpected, but a shift in focus like a paragraph-ending rallentando, a hitherto-unknown doubling of the bass line, weight applied sparingly and not the often-encountered mindless pounding.  More than this, the work held an unusual fluency,  best heard in the last movement where Selby in particular negotiated the octave runs with a sotto voce grace and provided Valve with a true partnership like the miraculous moment at the centre of the movement where the cello has the main theme and the piano’s accompaniment of a rolling A Major triad supports it with a balalaika-style rustling – the effect here and the detail of accomplishment at many other stages achieved through innate musicality and a fine depth of preparation by both executants.

As you’d expect after this groundwork, the Archduke realization proved exceptionally fine: determined in attack, meticulous in dynamic balance, both strings ideal in their close ensemble work, most evident in the chain of sixths and thirds at the start to the Andante cantabile and the interleaving sustained notes at the movement’s end.  But the performance was loaded with extraordinary moments, like Selby’s strong Weber-reminiscent chord/arpeggio upward bounds punctuating the Scherzo‘s trio, the precision of her rapid trills in the finale and the amiable sharing of sound-space between the musicians with every contributor audible throughout.  We may wait some time before coming across a reading as enriching, informative and spirit-lifting as this one.




Birdsong from the North

ALAN HOLLEY      ***

Australian Voices

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

November 5, 2015

This series – a collaboration between the Recital Centre and the Australian National Academy of Music –  has tended to air music by composers whose names are familiar or well-established.  While Sydney-based Alan Holley is verging on the age requirement for a senior Australian creative figure, his music has rarely travelled to Melbourne; at least, in my experience.  All the more welcome, then, that Thursday evening gave an audience of enthusiasts the chance to hear a variety of works covering Holley’s activity over the past eleven years.

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

Thanks to the expertise of a chain of talented young ANAM musicians and the committed direction of curator/trumpeter David Elton, we experienced two of Holley’s larger-framed constructs, interspersed with some solos from Elton alongside a few short pieces that served to illustrate the writer’s skill in finding congenial frames of operation for wind and brass instruments in particular.  Canzona for Ligeti begins with an off-stage horn solo – and, no matter what you do, the shade of Britten’s Serenade casts a long shadow – before a short and dynamic tribute written on the Hungarian composer’s death.  Clear in its linear interplay and texturally warm and spiky in turn, this set a fairly high standard of expectation for the rest of the night’s content.

Comprising a mixed nonet – five strings, three wind, horn – loaded with dream juxtaposes musical images of Australia’s first white settlers with the country’s indigenous peoples, the intellectual/emotional landscapes of both races spelled out in a score notable for some eloquent bass clarinet contributions from Luke Carbon.  Here again, Holley employed a varied sound palette, best exemplified by some striking low wind textures supporting a reticent string group.

Elton himself performed Ornithologia, splitting its two parts (in reverse order) at either end of a piano trio, the estuaries of time, which, like the nonet, marked a new e. e. cummings period in the composer’s style of nomenclature.   The trumpet solo gave the first overt reference to Holley’s preoccupation with birdsong, an influence that colours his work – well, the instances we heard here – and Elton’s eloquent performance gave an object lesson in rapidity of articulation as well as demonstrating an unshakable grip on the piece’s sequence of abrupt sonic explosions.

As for the birds, Holley uses a limited and local number of them.  There are no Messiaen-like ornate chromatically complex flurries; rather more suggestions than direct imitation although, to be even-handed, a world of difference in intention lies between the Calling section of Ornithologia and the French composer’s obsessively detailed Oiseaux exotiques.  Holley, unlike Messiaen, presents as more inclined to use what is available rather than to search out the more arcane sounds of rarer species.  Certainly, birdsong adds to the colour, the context even of Holley’s works’ progress, but its use  is not all-engrossing for the listener.

The piano trio opens with long solos for two of the participants; when the instruments coalesce, your attention tends to wander as the contrapuntal interplay is less engaging than Holley’s exploration of individual lines; as a result, I tended to focus on Iona Allan’s violin or Alexandra Patridge’s cello as distinct threads rather than looking for the score’s ensemble tension.  In this program’s context, the estuaries of time opened bravely enough but wore out their welcome, the pools they led to rather brackish despite the interpreters’ clear dedication to the task.

The last work of the night, The Winged Viola, was the earliest written, in 2004.  Soloist Gregory Daniel met its challenges with fine equanimity, his line piercingly clean in the Salon’ close situation.  Like the trio, this is a substantial work and deserved earlier placement; as it was, the lyrical curves and sprightly moments of technical brilliance impressed for their clarity, although the later-written scores already heard held more polished, more tautly enunciated content.  Less importantly, this chamber concerto came onto the scene well after the scheduled finishing time of the recital; enervating for those of us with a commitment later yesterday evening.

Mastery at close quarters


Daniel de Borah & Friends

Melbourne Recital Centre

October 27, 2015

Part of the Recital Centre’s Local Heroes all-embracing chain of recitals, pianist de Borah’s initiative acts as a sort of complement to Kathryn Selby’s long-lived series where musical colleagues join in ensembles either on an ad hoc basis or in an ongoing relationship.  Selby’s environment is usually that of the piano trio or quartet while de Borah gravitates to the duo format – his friends including another pianist, another singer or instrumentalist.

For yesterday’s program, the associate artist was Adam Chalabi: a familiar face as one-time leader of Orchestra Victoria, then that body’s artistic director, Head of Strings at the Australian National Academy of Music in 2012, currently first violin in the Tinalley String Quartet and a professor in violin at the University of Queensland.

Rather than picking over repertoire gems, the duo took on two differing but neglected sonatas.  Mozart K. 379 in G is hardly calculated to appeal to a violinist; the keyboard has all the running, particularly in the second-movement variations.  Chalabi’s strongly-voiced output gave de Borah’s active piano part a fair amount of competition but, for much of the work’s length, the string instrument runs in second place.  Which might explain why only a few of Mozart’s works in this form appear with any frequency. Elisabeth Sellars performed the set at St. Michael’s Church in Collins St. nine years ago but I doubt if this particular sonata has seen much light since then.

De Borah made a deft apologist for this small-framed piece gifted with many repeated sections.  His performing style serves as an object lesson; supple wrist work, each note carefully searched out, the hand curved in the time-honoured, teacher-approved style yet capable of sonorous and vehement passages without physical histrionics.

The violinist had all the running in what followed: The Lark Ascending, Vaughan Williams’ spare pastoral romance with its atmospheric, emotionally centred cadenzas that soar to impossibly high Ds. Most often, we hear this poem to the English countryside in the later violin-plus-orchestra format, in halls where kind acoustics help the soloist in the fluttering and swoops that illustrate Meredith’s rhapsodic lyric.  Chalabi span a strong, uncluttered thread with telling confidence, keeping his powder dry for the chain of double-stops at the score’s Largamente climax.  Even in the close quarters of the Salon, you could find few flaws in this artist’s pitch and firm right-hand address.

Continuing the Edwardian vein, the duo gave exposure to another rarity in Elgar’s E minor Sonata, among the composer’s last works and pretty contemporaneous with Vaughan Williams’ rural meditation. By contrast, this sonata looks four-square on the page, inclined to direct statements and sturdy development of set material.  De Borah and Chalabi infused it with vigorous character, in particular the expansive if plain-speaking first movement.  Even more success came with the final Allegro’s energetic canvas, interrupted by a reminiscence of the central Romance’s central theme.   After the pellmell drive and busyness of a Brahms-thick textural expedition, this retrospective moment demonstrated the musicians’ clear-minded skill in treating difficult material.  A standout recital from two performers in their prime.