Love short-changed


Chloe Lankshear & Alan Hicks

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

October 28, 2021

Chloe Lankshear

Great to see the MDCH enterprise is forging ahead, maintaining a bit of a cash flow for its participating artists, even as tentative steps are being made back to normal practice. Still, the way we were is a long time coming back and, even though various premiers and ministers are promising the end of lockdowns, I don’t believe them. This whole pandemic experience has been a farrago of mismanagement, lies and delusion to the point where, even in the so-called safety of Queensland, I still think twice before engaging with non-vital contacts. Recitals and concerts are still going on but the price to be paid for attending live performances is wearing a mask – almost endurable for an hour’s worth of chamber music, lethal for The Marriage of Figaro.

Hence, this non-intrepid music-lover’s delight in digital offerings. Thursday’s duo recital was a perplexing business in some respects. For one thing, it was short, the whole thing lasting about 40 minutes. Not that brevity is unusual in vocal recitals but another offering or two would have spun this out to an acceptable length. Another odd occurrence was that Strauss’s song from the Op. 68 set, Amor, was repeated and, further down the track, the Er, der herrlichste von allen from Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben, disappeared – quite a loss in a series that either managed to put men (really? men only?) in a curious or negative light or lamented their absence/death; I, for one, would have welcomed a splendid outburst of praise, particularly the way Schumann wrought triumph out of self-abnegation by concluding with a repetition of the first heroic verse.

Whatever the case, we heard the Strauss lied twice – and Hicks made a false start on Debussy’s Apparition . . . or did he? I was looking at the score, not the screening from Chatswood’s Concourse concert hall, but it seemed to me that the introductory bar stopped and began again before Lankshear emerged from the E Major mist with appropriate dreaminess.

What we did hear proved varied enough. These musicians opened with the earliest music on their tour of love’s highways and byways: Purcell’s The Cares of Lovers from Shadwell’s masque on Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. Real opera followed with Despina’s Act 1 aria in Cosi fan tutte, In uomini, in soldati. The double-dose of Strauss followed, then Debussy’s Mallarme setting and his pacific Beau soir to Paul Bourget’s gather-we-rosebuds verses. From about 45 years later came Nadia Boulanger’s J’ai frappe, before Lankshear and Hicks vaulted back to Handel’s Piangero la sorte mia from Giulio Cesare of 1724, 46 years after the Purcell/Shadwell collaboration and very well known to Opera Australia survivors of that company’s surrender to the countertenor vogue.

Rameau’s Tristes apprets, the first aria for Telaire (or, indeed, anybody human) in Rameau’s Castor et Pollux (1737), completed a tripartite homage to the Baroque, although the French master’s deploration was partnered with something of a similar character in Ravel’s Kaddish, even if the Jewish anthem is a single-minded hymn of praise. On either side of these two European works came two settings from George Crumb’s 1947 Three Early Songs: Wind Elegy and Let it be forgotten, to texts by Sara Teasdale. These also are flavoured with leave-taking, and absence amounting to death. So, with a few detours, the night’s promise was fulfilled, moving to personal loss (if not always death) from observations on love’s vagaries.

Lankshear handled her Purcell like the mini-rhapsody it is, employing a variable metre to which Hicks reacted with fidelity. My only question mark arose with some portamenti, like that between the last two notes of bar 3; not inappropriate exactly but a touch too suggestive, although the soprano employed the device temperately, setting up a contrast with the semiquaver figuration that erupts in the first 12 bars and in bars 19 to 21. Even better followed with the Mozart aria, both musicians clear in articulation except for a slight sluggishness in Lankshear’s final vanita. As well, one of the piano notes sounded flat in the orchestral interludes – the A above Middle C?

With the twice-heard Strauss Amor, the singer displayed a suitable fluency in handling the key shifts and brought out a modified ebullience of attack in the song’s hectic action. Still, the five crotchets’ worth of ornamentation at the first lachelt didn’t register; less noticeable problems, like the short quaver in the middle of ihn die Glut made little difference to the singer’s fluency. Later, the trills on the high B and B flat of Flamme didn’t register and a late entry on Brentano’s last line was another misfire in a work that is quite disciplined despite its sprightly-looking pages.

The first Debussy, Apparition, found the musicians hurling themselves into the composer’s purple patches with impressive gusto, particularly the lushness of Et j’ai cru. For all that rich smoothness, I didn’t understand what was going on at the change from laisse to La cueillaison; my old 1926 Revue musicale score doesn’t show any need for a pause or a here-changeth-the-key-signature highlighting. No worries with Beau soir which is easier on the imagery and the harmonic shifts; Lankshear blended with Hicks’ muted output in a reading of light sensitivity, memorable for its control in those hushed final 9 bars.

Lili Boulanger’s brief song continued the implied despair of Bourget’s poem – actually, well beyond implication to definite despair, this duo milking it for its dramatic potential throughout the second stanza and into the start of the third where poet and composer become more frantic in their abandonment. Hicks impressed with his emphatic chords in bars 6 and 11 and the abrupt turn to gloom in the sepulchral concluding Lent stretch. I’d not come across the piece prior to this night but admired greatly its atmosphere of concise hysteria. As you might have anticipated, the Handel aria held a few oddities which simply amounted to editorial choices, I suppose, like delaying the octave leap at bar 20 and ironing out any rhythmic irregularities in the later reaches of Handel’s central Ma poi morta display of temperament. More to the point, Lankshear made a sensible gear-shift back to pathos at the return to Piangero, well-suited to the recital situation if not quite emphatic enough for a staged performance. At the end, that final dotted crotchet on avro could have been held a tad longer.

The first of the Crumb songs, Wind Elegy, presents immediately a nice keyboard flourish to illustrate its title’s first noun. The vocal line is congenial enough, although I lost track of it during the Sparrows mate in the eaves verse; however, the song’s conclusion is a gift for both interpreters – and for us listeners, too, with its unresolved quality illustrating the ambivalence between sleep and death. Later, Let it be forgotten impressed as a slow-moving, steady plaint, treated with careful consideration and heading to an engrossing languor in the last lines’ three similes and to the fine stroke of leaving the voice with the last word – literally.

Between the American works came the Rameau solo. As with certain previous pieces like the Purcell, this presented as dramatic but essentially restrained, stately in its delivery from both musicians and striking in those bars where the voice is left unaccompanied; but then, the whole aria is spartan (appropriately). My only question mark came with the extended semibreve on Non at bar 30, although you can understand why a singer would want to emphasize its singularity in the aria’s context even if you disrupt the funereal inevitability. Then, completing this gloomy grouping that covered the last seven offerings in this 11-part program, Ravel’s half kaddish (congregation only) enjoyed an informed interpretation for which Lankshear kept focus during the cantillation sequences . . . actually, the whole thing is a cantillation but the soprano treated it to a ‘pure’ outline, apart from some small interpolations like the elision at the end of venehemata that concludes the prayer’s second last line, as well as a pause before the last Amen which, to my mind, should flow straight on from ve’imru.

Despite its early conclusion, this recital served to exhibit Lankshear’s range which does show a fair level of accomplishment from hard-edged precision to a creamy-smooth full timbre. You could find sure delight in her French components but what lives in the memory well after Thursday’s transmission are her Crumb readings: clear in direction and output, the notes slotting into place without fretfulness, the composer’s understated lines floating out with convincing sincerity.

Fine, but not enough


Andrew Goodwin and Vatche Jambazian

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Friday August 6, 2021

Vatche Jambazian

Of course, we all subscribe to the principle that length doesn’t matter; at my age, that can be taken as a fundamental tenet. But this recital was definitely under expectations. On average, Schumann’s song-cycle lasts about 20 minutes at its most orotund. The three songs by Rimsky-Korsakov would last between 7 and 8 minutes on a warm night. And that’s about all we got from this duo, the time augmented by a bit of enthusiasm and banter from Andrew Goodwin. You can talk about quality and get no disagreement from this quarter. But even the performers themselves realized that their presentation was light-on . . . which is why we got an extra Rimsky lied.

Working in the Chatswood Concourse Theatre, Goodwin and accompanist Vatche Jambazian entered into the cycle with plenty of drive and eloquence, both once again underlining what an unusual construct the series is as the composer leads from one unit into the next; there might be a cadence concluding Aus meinen Thranen but it’s disturbingly brief. And Jambazian’s left hand emphases in Die Rose, die Lilie added to the unsettled aura that sparks out from the opening 5 1/2 song,s which suggest happiness and optimism before a stinging reality hits home.

In the shot above, Jambazian is seated at a Fazioli instrument. In the Concourse, he had a Kawai that sounded rather tinny in its upper register; not that here’s much call for that in this score. But the effect was to make Goodwin’s elegant and resonant tenor present with extra character, particularly in his rapid-fire transfer of colour between songs that, in some cases, are over before they’ve begun. Both artists gave an ideal example of care with their material in Ich will meine Seele tauchen, Goodwin producing his four phrases with a restless subtlety of shape, Jambazian’s incessant left-hand demi-semiquavers restrained with only the postlude raising the temperature through that unexpected quartet of acciaccaturas.

Then the songs gain in tension, both artists giving Im Rhein an impressively full dynamic at the start before the work falls away, the singer drained of strength at his half-close while the piano moves steadily downward to negate the opening adamantine promise. Even better followed with Ich grolle nicht, the singer’s long notes smoothly manufactured and sustained – bars 3, 8, 9 and11 setting us up for a thrilling climb starting with a springing Ich sah’ dich ja and concluding with that punishing repetition of the lied’s title and obsessive keyboard finishing-off. More telling detail continued to emerge, like the sudden slower pace adopted for the final verse, Sie alle konnen’s to Und wussten’s die Blumen, and the piano’s lurch into disjointed triplet arabesques over the final 6 bars.

Jambazian took front row for Das ist ein Floten, insisting on his right hand contribution which always suggests a Mahler landler, while Goodwin made a powerful contribution as the heart-heavy observer. Again, the postlude impressed for its deft interweaving of action and gloom, right to that unhappy concluding tierce. In the following Hor’ ich da Liedchen klingen, Goodwin revealed once more his fine lyric insight, particularly his emphasis on Brust in bar 9 that signals a subdominant modulation that serves as a fulcrum, and later the measured delivery of his four last bars where the poet’s grief overwhelms him. The piano’s syncopated postlude impressed equally, particularly Jambazian’s emphasis of the sforzando-led inner part 7 bars from the end – a real out-of-the-depths moment.

Schumann’s counterweight Ein Jungling liebt ein Madchen, intended to lighten the ambience, achieves its end although the bitterness can still be found in the final couplet’s insistent repeated notes. As this pair demonstrated, any atmospheric lightening conceals a pain that goes beyond melancholy. Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen opened gracefully and amiably enough but something odd happened at the Es flustern und sprechen die Blumen line where Goodwin went off the rails momentarily; whether he’d jumped ahead to Sei unserer Schwester, I couldn’t tell but he recovered pretty quickly, Jambazian also made an equally uncharacteristic error in the song’s penultimate bar.

It’s rare that this tenor falters and his voice is such a refined instrument that you’re doubly surprised. It makes you nervous about what’s coming up and I lost track of him in the following Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet at the words noch lange bitterlich – probably my fault, but the song is pretty transparent. Then, a return to form in Allnachtlich im Traume, which is a lied guaranteed to display Goodwin’s clarity of production as it is left exposed without any distracting figuration in the accompaniment. Just as striking was the hunting-horn gigue Als alten Marchen, coming to a splendid declension at Ach, konnt’ ich dorthin kommen where both musicians found a mutual furrow of resignation that maintained traces of the initial joy in fairyland. The only question came with Goodwin’s restrained attack on Morgensonne that concludes the second-last line: an effort that didn’t quite succeed.

You could fine little to complain about in the final number, even if Goodwin’s lowest notes on the last syllables of the first stanza’s lines failed to carry – probably because too much was going on in the piano since the same notes came over much more easily in the poem’s concluding quatrain. Once again, you could relish the details, like that splendidly burnished ring on the top notes at Christoph, and that unforgettably consoling postlude that resolves from disturbance with unmatchable skill.

All three Rimsky songs – Na kholmakh Gruzii, Op 3 No. 4; O chem v tishi nochey, Op. 40 No. 3, and Oktava, Op. 45 No. 3 – are excellent example of the composer’s gift for generating a fluent line, although you’re hard pressed to find a point at which your interest quickened beyond an amiable imbibing . They’re a step up from salon songs, with the occasional burst of energy to give you something added to the mix. The first is notable for a vocal line opening that is packed with repeated notes before the composer sends both performers (including the tremolo-rich piano part) into a more expansive type of territory, including a splendid highpoint in the last lines of Pushkin’s poem. The next, a Maykov elegy, fell more into line with what was fashionable in France at the time: an infectious sweep to the melody, and plenty of crescendo/decrescendo surging up and down which is calculated to show Goodwin’s control to excellent advantage. Both performers invested the work with rubato and underlined its aura of veiled excitement; like Reynaldo Hahn, but a few steps outside the conservatory.

The addition/encore, again a setting of Maykov, is a florid address to the poet’s own verses and his aspirations for their success. This also builds to a powerful, brief burst of declamation on the final verse’s adverb ‘gracefully’ – which it almost was, thanks to Goodwin’s calm attack. The song’s unremarkable structure and material were well camouflaged by the obvious dedication of both executants, but it left us still waiting for something else. Sadly, the performers, with dutiful thanks to us, left the stage. A pleasure to hear the tenor, as always, and even better when he is appearing with a sympathetic partner. But they must have had something more in their combined repertoire, you’d think.

Talent with tedium


Melbourne International Festival of Lieder and Art Song

Melba Hall, University of Melbourne,

Friday July 13, 2018

                                                                              Franz Schubert

This didn’t turn out to be what I expected.

MIFLAS has recently been transplanted from Perth where Patricia Price founded and sustained it for the last four years; now it has found a new home at Melbourne University where, it is hoped, that the festival will continue as an annual event.  Not that the organizers are full of optimism; from the speeches I heard, the future is uncertain unless sponsorships continue (and preferably increase) and the academic ambience remains welcoming.  Oh, and it would probably be just as well if the committed who came to this night’s work would keep the faith.

The enterprise involved a week of masterclasses run twice daily from Sunday July 8 until Wednesday July 11, with an extra one thrown in on the morning of Thursday July 12.  The eventual outcome of all this endeavour was to be revealed in this final gala and, to some extent, it was.  But the result in reality turned out to be an illustrated lecture, and not a particularly good one at that.

Pride of place went, as you’d expect, to Schubert whose music occupied Friday evening’s first half.   We were offered seven solo lieder, one part-song and a melodrama excerpt.  After interval, the territory moved to a couple of Mendelssohn duets, including the mellifluous Ich wolt’ meine Lieb’ ergosse sich,  solitary Schumann and Brahms songs, then a Mahler quartet – half the Songs of a Wayfarer, the last of the Kindertotenlieder and the middle one of the Ruckert-Lieder.  But I saw little point in staying for the night’s second half as the opening gambits had proved so irritating.

Presenting this concert was Dr. Graham Johnson who, with Dr. Stephen Varcoe, was responsible for the nine masterclasses and an introductory conversation to launch the week.  Now, while director Price had every justification for addressing us and sounding alarms about the parlous state of lieder and art song in the modern age, it was hard to understand why Johnson felt obliged to follow up with his own oration, roughly twice as long and with a scatter-gun approach to content.

Each of the Schubert extracts was preceded by a spoken introduction from Johnson, some of them ponderously informative, others smacking of the self-indulgent, if not re-hashing historical material that would be familiar to anyone with half an interest in this field, like the academic staff I saw scattered around the Melba Hall stalls.  As things turned out, the young singers and three accompanists who had been instructed in their specific contributions during the week’s classes – except in two instances, according to the festival booklet’s table of events –  had to wait at their posts until their particular offerings had been introduced.

This preamble process took up time, of course, so that the night’s Schubert segment dragged.  What went some way to redeeming the exercise was the promise shown by some of the singers although, as the songs slipped past, I kicked myself mentally that I hadn’t attended any of the classes because, in some instances, faults that should have been assuaged over the week survived untouched and you had to wonder just how much technical instruction had been given along with interpretative injunctions and music appreciation background.

German-born baritone Markus Matheis opened the music with Die Sommernacht which was treated with a double dose of solemnity, rather than the wondering warmth that this recitative deserves.   A difficult set of pages but Matheis has a solid production if inclined to hollowness in this work where he should have been bold enough to take the initiative – which he enjoys in this piece whenever he opens his mouth.

Soprano Teresa Ingrilli from Perth came next with Der Jungling und der Tod which tested her light timbre.  The reading proved unsettling as the singer sounded nervous at the opening, to the extent that you wondered if the problem lay with her vibrato, although later sections like the O komme Tod address came across with more determination.  Ingrilli was accompanied by Timothy Mallis who produced an excellent postlude and refrained from drawing attention to himself at the bar 25 self-quotation.

Given two pieces to handle, Launceston tenor Benjamin Martin gave an ultra-sensitive account of Geheimes although it was hard to understand whether his constant volume manipulation was the result of instruction or his own determination.   On investigation, it appeared that this song had not been scheduled for examination during any pf the master classes.   Whatever the cause, this dynamic swerving gave this superb song’s surface a mottled complexion, as though Goethe’s lover is transferring the behavioural screen of the song’s environment to the performance; an interesting device but effete in practice.  Nacht und Traume fared slightly better but several vocal phrases dwindled away to nothing and while you can get away with softness on falling intervals, you have to calculate how strongly you have to sound out against your accompaniment  –  in this case, an assertive Johnson who carried out this service for most of these Schubert singers.

Alessia Pintabona is in her third year at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and struggled with Die Manner sind mechant, a war-of-the-sexes fribble that needs a more fulsome, knowing vocal quality to give it some charm.  This was the least impressive Schubert product (bar one) of the night and even accompanist Isaac Mouskovias found it hard to deliver any fluency at punctuation points.  For a song that is intended to be amusing, the laughs were brittle, certainly not full-bellied, but you could lay much of the blame for that with the composer.

More serious matter came with Im Abendrot,  Melbourne soprano Jordina Howell gave it a fairly uninflected interpretation, the pace not as slow as it could have been even if her projection was well calculated.  But she hadn’t been allowed to introduce much helpful rubato and breaks for breath came often enough to disrupt the pages’ continuity.

Matheis returned with Fischerweise, handling its fluent regularity with much more impressive results than expected; this was another lied that was not scheduled in any master class.  He conveyed much of the text’s stalwart focus on the task in hand and managed to keep the last quatrain from sounding slightly disdainful.   Further, the young tenor sustained a calm and even output over an accompaniment that drew too much attention to itself.

A quartet comprising soprano Jenna Roubos, mezzo Alexandra Mathew, tenor Thomas Harvey and bass-baritone James Emerson were supported by accompanist Julia Hastings in a fair version of Die Geseligkeit.  I can’t remember how many of the poem’s four verses were sung; enough to give time to admire the equable soprano/mezzo combination and to fret over the tenor’s pitching.  Nevertheless, the group achieved a respectable realization of the piece’s bonhomie although we could have reasonably expected more jauntiness in the first three lines of each verse.

The Abschied von der Erde melodrama recitation from Varcoe and Johnson wound up this Schubert bracket.   While mildly interesting in itself, it struck me as irrelevant to the thrust of the evening’s work.  Varcoe recited the words with clarity if an occasional superfluous drawl and Johnson powered through the piano part; Fischer-Dieskau and Moore, it definitely was not and I would happily have exchanged it for Am Bach im Fruhling, Auf der Donau or any other of the handful of Schubert lieder that these two artists have recorded.

So, this was not my idea of a gala concert but an eventually tedious exercise that smacked of the lecture hall.   It reminded me slightly of my limited exposure to Keith Humble’s mode of leading discussions – the guru speaking from an imaginary rostrum without much chance of inter-action from the groundlings, leaving you to fossick assiduously for the small gems that glittered among the dross.   What is needed at future summary recitals like this is more music, less talk.

Dark consolations


Songmakers Australia

Melbourne Recital Centre

Wednesday October 4, 2017

                                                                                    Merlyn Quaife

As depressing programs go, this hour’s music-making was remarkably positive and seamlessly organised.   Andrea Katz‘s brainchild, Songmakers Australia, on this Slavs-only night featured two of the organization’s stalwarts in soprano Merlyn Quaife and tenor Andrew Goodwin, with mezzo Christina Wilson stepping in for regular Sally-Anne Russell.  Supported by Katz’s resolute accompaniment, these artists shared the first half’s honours in pairs of songs and duets by Glinka, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Kabalevsky although Goodwin enjoyed both duets as well as two solos while the female singers each had a duet collaboration and two solitary exposures.

None of this material was familiar – well, not to me.   Glinka, despite being the fons et origo of Russian music after the Enlightenment, remains a mystery man in this country, apart from a couple of overtures, so the two extracts from his cycle A Farewell to St. Petersburg  –  Cradle Song and The Lark  –  whetted the appetite for more because of their individualistic lyrical attractiveness.   Quaife took the vocal line in the first but Goodwin joined in with a contribution I can’t trace; there’s a version for voice, cello and piano but this one for two voices and keyboard I can’t track down.

Similarly, The Lark  seemed to have Goodwin as its main protagonist while Wilson provided vocal counterpoint, but finding a two-voice version proved impossible, although the final line for tenor and mezzo in this piece made for one of the recital’s high-points because of its emotional warmth and ideal balance.   And for those of us who thought Tchaikovsky’s melancholy sprang solely from an idiosyncratic personality, think again: the seeds are here, even in these two emotionally unpretentious songs.

As for Tchaikovsky, Goodwin sang one of the Sixteen Songs for Children, starting with Winter Evening, which opens benignly enough before moving into a grimmer landscape where a happy fireside domesticity gives way to reminders that, outside, the world is a stark place for the unfortunate.   Katz seized upon the postlude, giving it a confronting intensity and force that matched Goodwin’s unabashed rhetoric in Pleshcheyev‘s two final stanzas.  Then, the cycle’s next song, The Cuckoo, has an equally fortissimo conclusion and Goodwin surged through his page of onomatopoeic duplets while the piano thundered out its  –  approval? disapproval? impatience? or just an old-fashioned hurry to get to the end?

The two Mussorgsky pieces came from The Nursery song cycle and produced the most interesting music in this part of the recital, probably because of the composer’s lack of concern for the voice as anything but a vehicle for words.  Quaife sang the opening piece in the sequence, With Nurse, and made a mobile enough creature of this stop-start monologue with plenty of expressive detail and a well-etched contrast between the two verses.   She also sang the last completed piece in the two-part cycle, The Cat ‘Sailor’; another of the more striking settings of the composer’s own verses, this illustrated even more readily Mussorgsky’s craft in setting a text to a fitting melodic structure, the song moving from a regular rhythmic pattern to a near-parlando mode of action, well realised by both artists with a minimum of dynamic over-gilding.

As for the Kabalevsky pair, both given by Wilson, these came from the composer’s unexceptionable, if unexceptional, set of Seven Nursery Rhymes: There was an old woman, and I saw a ship a-sailing.   The first introduced us to the mezzo whose production was unflustered if unchallenged by this material, although her middle range has little distinctiveness about it, least of all in this context where Katz again gave full vent to an active piano component.  The second piece, not a particularly interesting bagatelle. seemed to be toeing the party line in its Soviet schmaltz, although Wilson enjoyed the undemanding experience.

After this octet came Shostakovich’s From Jewish Folk Poetry Op. 79, a deliberately sombre group of 11 songs written in the shade of the Holocaust, the 1948 Zhdanov denunciation of the composer (and others), and Stalin’s imposition of the Nazis’ Final Solution on his country’s Jewish population.   The sequence stands alone in Shostakovich’s output in its lack of a mediating filter, for its bitterness at his nation’s polity and his total sympathy with the victims of a state-run universal pogrom, and for a close identification with Jewish folk and klezmer musics.   This interpretation played with a straight bat, not overloading the tragedy that underpins every section of the cycle, in spite of some mordant humour in The good life and the final Happiness.   No, this singing trio concentrated on direct simplicity and an unbending strength of delivery, eschewing the temptation to opt for sentimentality in wrenching pages like those in Lamentation for a dead child, Cradle song, and Winter.

In this performing context, Quaife was most comfortable, contributing significantly to the first two songs: duets with Wilson that began with hectic mourning, then moved to the similarly nervous reassurance of an ailing child.   Wilson’s solo Cradle song made its points concerning isolation and exile with plangent simplicity, although you might have asked for a more synchronous partnership at some of the ritardandi points.   Quaife and Goodwin worked through Before a long separation with an engrossing juxtaposition of despair and resignation expressed in a driving alternation of apostrophes before both voices join in the same plaint: the individuals representing the generations of lovers and families torn apart by an indifferent officialdom.

You became more conscious with each passing number what a dour world Shostakovich is illustrating.    Quaife’s urgent Warning stood for every mother protecting her child from temptation as well as from the dark terrors that stalk the unwitting object of persecution.   The following The abandoned father for Wilson and Goodwin could have been amusing, a Goldberg and Schmuyle study for the 20th century, except for its underpinning message of familial abandonment and disloyalty.

The musical atmosphere remains ironic in Song of misery which Goodwin negotiated with his trademark unrelenting clarity as he presented pastoral pictures, unexceptional in themselves, but hiding a depth of suffering and starvation; which is continued through all three voices in Winter where, at the conclusion to Goodwin’s description of an ill wife and child, the trio mourn the advent of a death-ridden season.   Goodwin proceeded to outline a Schubert-reminiscent The good life with a firm directness of address, contrasting the bad old days with the new age of the collective farm, the death-throes of Tsarist Russia turning into the Golden Age of Communism, suffering transmuted into mindlessness.

Quaife achieved even better in the penultimate Song of the girl where the cattle-herd seems to mimic a Song of the Auvergne in a picture of bucolic content until, at the end, we realize that this gaiety and high spirits are false, compulsorily imposed on singer.   Finally, Wilson bore the brunt of Happiness which should offer an optimistic uplift by depicting the cliches of worldly success and contentment, but the biting music shows that these are all false and the old pain from random murder and continual persecution lie just below the surface; for Russian Jewry: no ‘star shines above our heads now.’

The most significant quality of this cycle’s rendition was its non-stop nature, the songs merging with chilling effectiveness and bite as their surfaces cracked to reveal a nightmare world where words cannot be taken at face value and an eminently singable, even popular-sounding music veers on collapse into a dirge.   For anybody inclined to diminish Shostakovich’s negotiation of a knife-edge path of survival through the years of Stalin, this cycle stands as testimony to the composer’s compassion and anger at what was so obviously a disgrace and shame for the world after the revelations of 1945 but which continued without qualms of conscience for further decades behind the Iron Curtain.

And for those sad moral delinquents who think politics and music don’t mix, they should look on this wrenching song-cycle and (hopefully) despair.   Songmakers Australia has informed my year significantly by presenting it and accomplishing the undertaking with admirable fidelity.

Love, loud and clear


Songmakers Australia

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

April 13, 2016

Songmakers Australia (

Opening this year’s short account – two recitals only – the vocal quartet and pianist that make up the Songmakers Australia personnel headed for the top with a program of Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann, although not necessarily familiar pages from these keystone markers of the song repertoire.   Mozart’s Six Notturni, for example, are rarities on disc and in performance; not surprising when you take into account the required accompaniment of three basset horns in four of them, with two clarinets and one basset for the others.  On this occasion, the Songmakers’ founder, Andrea Katz, played a piano reduction which robbed the small-framed scraps of a textural interest but you had to wonder if much of that buzzing colour would have stood out under the combined voices of soprano Merlyn Quaife, mezzo Sally-Anne Russell and bass-baritone Nicholas Dinopoulos.

In fact, these vocal trios are dubious in their attribution to Mozart, although the authorities are as one in sourcing the final one, Mi lacero tacendo, to the composer while divvying up responsibility for the earlier ones between Mozart and a member of the Jacquin family for whose entertainment they were written.  Whatever the case, the writing is cleverly contrived so that the voices enjoy a balance in performance, these singers by now well used to collaborating.  Even so, you won’t find any shrinking violets in this ensemble and I suspect that some of these mainly binary-form bagatelles enjoyed a sturdiness of attack that they would rarely have experienced, but the final Mi lagnero tacendo, through-composed, brought to mind, more than its companions, the Act 1 trio in Cosi fan tutte, prefiguring Soave sia il vento by seven years but giving hints of its  elegantly drawn phrasing and slightly chromatic bite.

Tenor Andrew Goodwin gave a masterly account of Beethoven’s seminal cycle An die ferne Geliebte, investing each of the six linked songs with  a ringing force that proved more than a little compelling in the Salon’s closed space.   Recently, Goodwin sang the Evangelist’s part for the Melbourne Bach Choir’s Good Friday performance of the St. Matthew Passion and thereby brightened an experience that can be more penitential than needed.  This Beethoven exposure gave fresh insights into the quality of his voice: evenly-applied colour across most of his range, bright and crisp articulation, absolute confidence in pitching, penetrating individual richness to each sustained note, no hesitation in taking on  slightly awkward melodic arches as in the first part of the final Nimm sie hin denn, or lending an interest in passages where the vocal line stalls like the monotone at the centre of the second song, Wo die berge so blau. Further to this, Goodwin made an excellent counter-force to Katz’s strong delivery of the accompaniment; a persuasive alternative to the often soppy, Schubert mimicry of many another interpretation.

Schumann’s Spanisches Liederspiel came to me – and quite a few of us, I think – as a complete novelty.   None of the songs was even vaguely familiar; seven of them are duets or quartets but not even the solos rang any reminiscent bells. With all four vocalists ready and keen, the original 12-song cycle took off with gusto from Quaife and Russell’s volatile reading of Erste Begegnung, through to Goodwin and Dinopoulos’s gentler Intermezzo. Several pieces stood out: Quaife’s ardent reading of In der Nacht, joined half-way through by Goodwin who continued the lambent intensity of this interpretation; Dinopoulos enjoying the lilting jauntiness of Flutenreicher Ebro (one of the songs Schumann cut from the cycle after its premiere) and struggling to keep up in Der Contrabandiste which, even if its tempo direction is Schnell, would have gained from a less pell-mell approach; the elation that characterised each verse of the concluding Ich bin geliebt, coming to rest in a final rousing A Major chorus of affirmation.  At its end, a pleasure to make the acquaintance of this collection and to hear it treated with a bracing combination of brisk animation and sensibly-applied musicianship.

New space, new sound


La Compania

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Saturday March 19, 2016

La Compania (
                                                                                    La Compania 

After a fair stretch of time working out of the Recital Centre’s Salon, this expert period music ensemble has moved its performance venue across Swanston Street Bridge to the Deakin Edge.   One immediate advantage is that patrons now have unimpeded visual access to the group’s performance: they’re all exposed, head to toe.  And, thanks to the space’s natural light, you can see the labour involved in the players’ work.  Another incidental benefit is that the need for two sittings of the same program on the same day has disappeared and, by yesterday’s showing, La Compania has largely retained its audience.

A disadvantage comes in the Edge’s acoustic properties.  While they can flatter a chamber orchestra, a small set of players like La Compania’s septet can become imbalanced, given the large air space.  Worth investigating is the solution put into practice by Kathryn Selby which is a back screen of panels that bounces sound out into the audience; this reflection works very well for piano trio recitals and might do much to lift the audible profile of Victoria Watts on viola da gamba and Rosemary Hodgson‘s vihuela and small guitar/chittarino, both of which tended to disappear in the sonic complex except when used percussively or when the wind components fell silent.

Opening the new season in a new room, Danny Lucin led his players and two singers in a program concentrated on Mateo Flecha the Elder, the early 16th century Aragonese composer attributed by some musicologists with the composition of that well-known Chistmas villancico, Riu riu.   But this program consisted entirely of the composer’s ensaladas – salads indeed, mixing languages and metres in a cleverly unified whole; to my mind, more like a mixed grill because of the emphatic if changing rhythms and the clear melodic definition, some stimulated taste-buds removed from lettuce leaves and cucumber.  Three of these involved singers, soprano Cristina Russo and tenor Timothy Reynolds: La negrina, La guerra and the substantial El fuego.   Interwoven came three instrumental transcriptions: La bomba and two brief extracts from another ensalada, El jubilate: O que bonita cancion and La girigonca.

Pretty much all of these, sung or played, have a religious basis: some connected to the birth of Christ, others like La guerra concerned with the inevitable triumph of the Son of David over Lucifer or the necessity to follow the strait and narrow path rather than succumbing to the tempting fires, depicted in El fuego (of course), that can seduce mankind into wrong-doing in this temporal realm.   All very laudable and, if you have to endure moral-enforcing strictures, they could hardly be more agreable than these buoyant and optimistic miscellanies, written for the Christmas-time delectation of Spanish aristocrats.

In this new operating ambience, Cristina Russo’s projection impressed more than the last time I heard her in the Salon.  From the confident opening to La negrina, her projection emerged clearly from a considerate instrumental backing, a fair match for Reynolds’ always-lucid tenor.  In fact, this ensalada offered the most obvious examples of internal variety, its parts glued together in a rapid-moving miscellany, while the later stages of La guerra held some cleverly constructed and just-long-enough onomatopoeic passages where the singers mimicked the sounds of battle.   In addition, both Russo’s and Reynolds’ articulation in these instantly perceptible right-or-wrong conditions remained finished and accurate and their diction impressed consistently, given the rapidity with which several stretches of the texts had to be pronounced.

Lucin’s cornetto is as supple as ever, never strident but sinking to a gentle piano when escorting the singers, even if some of his ornamentation work sounded over-rushed; too many notes, as Mozart’s emperor said.  When Brock Imison took up his bass dulcian, the instrument’s penetrating force gave the ensemble’s output an added weight, matching Mitchell Cross‘s penetrating tenor dulcian while Glenn Bardwell‘s sackbut presented a discreet line throughout the program.  In fact, the streamlined shape of the company, with Christine Baker‘s percussion offering plenty of colour in her chameleonic supporting role, gave this celebratory music an attractive leanness that only came unstuck at the start of O que bonita cancion which began with a solo from Hodgson that sounded tentative, possibly because the notes fell awkwardly for the player’s left hand.   But it was a small blemish, forgotten when the other instrumentalists entered into this particularly enjoyable ensalada party.

Light on Schubert


Melbourne Art Song Collective

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

November 30, 2015

Michael Smallwood

Almost five months ago, baritone Florian Boesch accompanied by Malcolm Martineau performed the three Schubert song-cycles as a job lot for the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series: solid readings, eloquent in address, determinedly serious if not actually stern in their impact.  Such an interpretative approach is generally to be expected: two of the sets – Winterreise and Die Schone Mullerin – illustrate tragedies.  But both of these cycles offer combinations of light and dark, excesses of enthusiasm as well as of depression, and this alternation came over clearly in Monday night’s reading of the Mullerin sequence from tenor Michael Smallwood and pianist Eidit Golder.

One of the factors that made this recital so exceptional was Smallwood’s splendid diction; every word counted and came across with sterling precision.  Yes, it’s much easier to achieve this in the small confines of the Salon, as opposed to Boesch’s having to cope with the Murdoch Hall acoustic, but the young Australian sustained his precision of articulation from the strongly accented opening Das Wandern, to the last soft strophes of Des Baches Wiegenlied.  In between, the tenor’s operatic experience told in bracing accounts of Ungeduld, typified by a deft alternation between the nervous excitement of each verse’s first five lines and the proud assertiveness each time in the concluding Dein ist mein Herz proclamation, deludedly one-sided as it turns out to be.

While Smallwood maintained a fluent delivery in less taxing numbers like Morgengruss or the four-square patterns of Mein!, more complex structures demonstrated his facility of even output – the long phrases of Pause, the erratic intensity that permeates Die bose Farbe, the shifts in character between the various sections of Am Feierabend where the poet/singer’s fate is determined.  Dynamic gradations sparked interest in practically all of the cycle’s 20 components but just as noticeable was Smallwood’s use of his high register: at times stentorian and bold, at others mezza voce for the high-mark of a curved phrase, flautando verging on falsetto in restrained, tense moments of introspection (although what parts of this obsessive work fall outside that descriptor?).

Golder, the most considerate of accompanists, put hardly a finger wrong throughout the cycle’s length, diligently negotiating the wide-ranging elements that are exercised during the work’s progress; to my ears, the most notable being those amiable but difficult-to-phrase semiquaver flurries in Wohin?,  the circular pattern-work of Halt!, scads of gruff low-lying triplets during Die bose Farbe, and the eventually mobile but disturbingly insistent upper pedal notes of the work’s last lied.

With her instrument open on the short stick, Golder offered a chameleonic support for her singer, not fearing to take an aggressive note when the attack directive called for it, happy to take geschwind on face value for Der Jager and  Eifersucht und Stolz and observe its various modulations for other lyrics.  But the most impressive characteristic of her work was not its beneficence but her awareness of the singer’s needs. It was rare to hear a hint of rhythmic dislocation, although it would be difficult to achieve any discrepancy in something like Der Jager which these executants took at breakneck speed.

In sum, here was a light-filled version of Schubert’s compendium which sustains its underpinning of despairing innocence to the end.  While many collaborators in Die schone Mullerin can offer impressive moments, only informed intelligences like Smallwood and Golder can take you without a mis-step along the traveller’s journey, outlining with clarity and dedication each step along its slow downward gradient; an impressive partnership that contrived to make this major work both technically clean and interesting.