Heavenly length? Maybe


Australian Octet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday April 22

                                                                    William Hennessy

In one of its more lopsided efforts, the MCO performed three works on Sunday: a short new work by Benjamin Martin and Beethoven’s Serioso F minor String Quartet took a little over half an hour, to be followed by a solid reading of the Schubert Octet where I think every repeat was observed so that we got the work’s full effect – all quite in order, since that’s the way the composer wanted it, even if attention flags somewhat in the Andante with variations.

Martin’s Passepied was composed to capitalise on the musicians available for the octet: string quartet with double bass, and three wind – clarinet, bassoon and horn.  It needed to be played twice, in the best Society for Private Musical Performances mode.  Although lasting only a few minutes, it showed an intricacy of statement and development that could have been made more apprehensible after a second hearing.

Naturally, the work raised a simple question: exactly what is a passepied? Most of us know it’s a dance form, found in suites along with the usual courantes, allemandes, sarabandes and gigues.  Unlike these staples, it usually features as an alternative , like a musette or a gavotte.  Even though I know they are familiar to Baroque experts, I’ve only come across one from that era: the first of two in Bach’s English Suite No. 5, once part of the AMEB piano syllabus.  The form strikes me still as an active minuet.  But then, you have to consider Debussy’s one that concludes his Suite bergamasque which is fast-moving enough but eschews the traditional triple metre.  Some commentators find a passepied in Stravinsky’s Symphony in C and the change in time signature (a third of the way through the third movement) to 3/16 could denote such an interpolation.

For his part, Martin makes things more complicated by layering his 6/4 metre with a hemiola, so that you’re never quite sure where you are or where the accents are meant to fall.  The theme he uses is amiable and soulful, subjected to gentle treatment including a bit of inversion.  But this music’s real interest lies in its inter-meshing levels which avoid soupiness but impress as packed with ambiguities as when a simple quaver-plus-two-semiquavers pattern shifts into a quaver triplet; at least, that’s what I think was going on.  An aggressive climactic point provides the necessary tension and sense of narrative before the piece finishes both ambiguously and quietly.  A lot happens in a little space.

William Hennessy, the MRC artistic director, took first chair throughout the afternoon, with Markiyan Melnychenko his second, Merewyn Bramble on viola and Michael Dahlenburg the ensemble’s cellist.  These four were a common factor in all three works and were heard en clair in the Beethoven quartet.  This opened with fine melding from all involved, in particular when the two violins operated at the octave in those melting moments at bars 40 to 42, bars 51 to 53, and later in equivalent positions during this initial Allegro‘s recapitulation.  Still, these are passages of emotional rest and the main thrust of the work is both vital and confrontational, descriptors fully realised by all players.

In the Allegretto, Dahlenburg’s initial cello pizzicati set up a sombre ambience for a reading of barely subdued passion, distinguished by a soulful solo from Bramble at the start of the fugal entries in bar 35, and the haunting reminiscence of his opening gesture from the cellist at bar 112.   While the scherzo impressed for its vehemence, the standout moment came in the D Major Trio with Melnychenko’s unforced solo line at the start an unexpected if brief delight.  Uniformity of attack was the distinctive feature of the finale but this is the weakest movement of the four, disappointing in its Mendelssohnian opting for the light side in its coda, complete with insistent unisons.

Sometimes dominating the Schubert’s communal timbre but not self-promoting was Lloyd van’t Hoff’s clarinet, a creamy presence in the opening Adagio/Allegro. That was, in some ways, expected: Schubert treats this voice with a sort of demanding benevolence – which cannot be said of the horn part which enjoyed the attentions of Anton Schroeder who seemed to make remarkably few slips throughout the work’s duration and gave us some memorably clear-speaking moments like the solo at the end of this first movement.  which galloped past with few causes for concern. Hennessy was under stress at bar 130 just before the exposition ends, then waltzed through the same passage at the repeat.

Van’t Hoff p[roved to be the hero for Schubert’s Adagio, but then he had the glorious opening melody all to himself.  Still, the honours were sometimes shared fairly among the wind and upper strings, Dahlenburg and Emma Sullivan on double bass not getting much of the composer’s attention.  As in the Beethoven, the Scherzo‘s best impression was made in the trio, here treated by the string quartet with high courtesy informed by an underlying buoyancy.

The Andante‘s tune is cute, almost affectedly sweet but eminently suited to variations, even if some of the composer’s exertions follow familiar tracks in patterns given to both violins and in the allocation of primacy.  Hennessy sounded flustered in the second half of Variation 1 where the lower winds comment before the clarinet arrives for a revealing doubling of the upper string line.  Dahlenburg made the most of Variation 4, surging through his arpeggio-rich solo with commendable authority and expressive address.  But this entire movement strikes me as a drop in standard compared to what surrounds it; not enough invention or shifts from the predictable.

In the Menuetto, the material might be simple but its shaping is remarkable, well instanced by the first violin’s soft soaring at bars 30 to 33, Hennessy giving us all a lesson in expert enunciation.  The whole movement, including the Trio, prefigures the Brahms Serenades in its suggestions of bucolic opulence, notably the octave duet for Matthew Kneale’s bassoon and Hennessy at the trio’s midway point.

As it should, the reading ended with a high-spirited Allegro but, oh God, it’s long.  A nice touch came through the communal hesitations in outlining the movement’s four-square main theme but, by this stage, you could hear slight imperfections in the fast triplet passages from the treble instruments.  Not that you can blame the players: Schubert is dogged in his insistence on giving out his thematic material in various combinations; it’s reminiscent of those myriad bars of whirling action to be found in the finale of the C Major Symphony No. 9 but with less opportunity for dynamic brilliance.

The MCO patrons were warmly responsive at the Octet’s conclusion, and rightly so since the rendition they had experienced captured the core of this long-winded work.  It makes no great claims to profound statements but stands foursquare as a mighty cassation: a set of disparate movements, the best of them as appealing as anything in Schubert’s improbably large output.  The fact that these performers had given the program on the previous night in Daylesford might go some way to explaining several unaccountable if slight intonation lapses in the Octet’s later pages.  At least they’ll have had a day’s grace before giving the Octet again to a select group of affluent patrons in the Recital Centre’s Salon tonight at 6 pm.

Not again


Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Tuesday April 17

                                                                     Corinne Winters

Once again, the national company of Sydney has brought this fidgety version of Verdi’s opera to Melbourne, to serve as a season opener – although you’d have to apply that term loosely as the diet for offer in the State Theatre consists of this lacklustre work,  John Bell’s Nazi update on Tosca, and Massenet’s Don Quichotte fresh from its performances in the Sydney Summer season although without one of the cast drawcards, Elena Maximova’s La Belle Dulcinee giving way to Sian Pendry’s reading of the part.  And that’s it, folks.

Let’s get to the real problem with this Traviata.  It doesn’t lie in Michael Yeargan’s familiar sets: two overstuffed parlours contrasted with bleak prospects in Act 2 Scene 1 and Act 3. Nor can you fault Peter J. Hall’s costumes which are consonant with the production’s prevailing ‘look’.  It might not even be attributable to Elijah Moshinsky’s direction which lets the main characters move sensibly around the stage, even if they don’t actually do anything of interest; in fact, the country scene is stripped of visual interest; you’d have to suspect, on purpose.

No, the insurmountable hurdle at the opening night was the music-making, both on stage and in the pit.  Yes, the opera starts with a dangerous Prelude, all slow high strings; conductor Carlo Montanaro could not contrive to give his Orchestra Victoria charges the necessary confidence to carry off this fragile music.  Matters improved when the curtain rose for Act 1 on a set that always looks claustrophobic on this theatre’s large stage space.  The pit wattled along to excellent purpose in the opening dialogue, even if Corinne Winters as Violetta seemed to be distracted by her guests and lagged behind the beat.

This indifference to the established musical pulse is no new thing with opera singers.  Italian opera can fare poorly in this regard, especially Puccini who, as far as some sopranos are concerned,  might as well not have bothered with bar-lines.  And, year after year, what tempo atrocities are committed on Wagner who is much kinder than Verdi to his interpreters, regardless of voice type.

What compounded the problem was Montanaro’s bending over backwards to help Winters along; if she lingered over a phrase – and she did, over several – he followed her meanderings.   You can do that with a lot of free-standing recitative but hardly with the quick-fire repartee that opens Act 1 of this opera.  By the time we arrived at Ah, fors e lui, the pace was dragging significantly, to the point where I thought the aria might have to be re-started, or the conductor would allow it to come to a dead halt.  This devil-may-care attitude to pace doesn’t matter as much later in the opera, but in this section that depicts Violetta as a free spirit and where the character’s ebullience is paramount, there is no defence for dragging out anything, even a self-questioning aria.  Mind you, whether from unwillingness or simple good taste, the singer left out the screeching E flat that every Violetta feels that she has to interpolate before the last note of Sempre libera.

Matters of congruent tempo improved markedly in Act 2 and the solid duet with Germont pere came over as functioning properly.  Even so, Winters failed to convince of the heroine’s despair at sacrificing her happiness for a greater good (if you can call it that).  The notes were there and the emotional gestures were in plain sight, like the pianissimo repeat of Dite alle giovine; yet the necessary communication of a broken spirit failed to come across during the brief cross-purposes duet with Alfredo that is, to my mind, the opera’s most moving passage.

Winters’ death scene worked very well, despite an Addio del passato that might have gained from more variation in attack, although the descending natural A minor scale at ah! tutto fini came over informed by some welcome bitter despair in its articulation.  The soprano has an interesting stage presence and she has familiarity with this role; not surprisingly,  since she has sung it in Basel, San Diego, Seattle, Virginia, Ottawa, London and Hong Kong,  But it was a difficult task to claw back credibility from that unsatisfying first act, even though Verdi gave his sinned-against character a spell-binding farewell with the Cessarono change of pace.

You could find little to complain about with Yosep Kang’s Alfredo.  He carried out his tasks with zeal and an excellent technique, from Libiamo right through to Parigi, o cara with a nicely self-satisfied Di miei bollenti spiriti contrasting with a fetchingly self-indulgent O mio rimorso! as a chaser that brightened the aural landscape before the cant and hypocrisy of this character’s father bears all before him.

If anything, the tenor’s work lacked personality.  Even at Alfredo’s worst moment – when he throws money at Violetta in Flora’s salon – you remained outside the emotional ferment; admiring the temperamental outburst but not convinced that the lad had real cause to whip himself into such a state of frustrated rage.

The opera has only three roles and veteran Jose Carbo took on the important one of Alfredo’s father.  Again, this characterization left me cold, even in those potentially gripping moments where he condoles with Violetta at her tragic loss in giving up Alfredo.  As for Di Provenza, the gentle sway of Verdi’s melody line was not assisted by the bass’s hefty vibrato on the high F at each verse’s end.

Was it a lack of involvement from the singer that militated against any engagement with this personality?  I think so; here, Germont shows little concern for what he is asking of Violetta, contributed to by his lack of physical involvement in the action.  When she asks him Qual figlia m’abbraciate, despite the stage direction, he doesn’t.  Later, Carbo’s Di piu, non lacerarmi at Germont’s moment of self-realisation was delivered without regard for either his tortured son or the dying woman he had come to console.  This wasn’t the depiction of an unbending puritan, forbidding in his self-righteousness; you simply didn’t care about the complexity that Piave preserved from Dumas’ novel.

Dominica Matthews sang a competent Flora; Natalie Aroyan made a self-effacing Annina; John Longmuir enjoyed himself as the young roue Gastone and Tom Hamilton melted into the background as d’Obigny.  Adrian Tamburini brought the customary unpleasant swagger and machismo to Douphol.

Montanaro and his forces sounded best in Flora’s party music, reflecting the action with alacrity.  As usual, the pit output would have gained from more strings, especially violins for the exposed pages that preface the outer acts.  Still, the work rarely sounded commonplace or vulgar, which is always a danger when the chorus takes over.

While Act 1 fared well enough with a satisfyingly full choral texture, the second scene of Act 2 misfired, as it always will, not least because of the cramped conditions that obtain throughout the Noi siamo zingarelle/E Piquillo segment where the choreography looks inefficient and awkward, risible in its efforts to convey Hispanic high spirits.

To be honest, I was relieved when the final curtain came down.  Every once in a while, you could glory in a splendid page or two like the Parigi, o cara duet or Violetta’s magnificent Morro – la mia memoria outburst, but your enjoyment was principally due not to the singers’ work but to Verdi’s touching responsiveness to his characters and the superlative lyricism that he invested in them.   In the end, this was too much of a hard night at the opera.

The production will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Saturday April 21, Monday April 23, Monday April 30, Wednesday May 2, Friday May 4, Tuesday May 8, and Friday May 11. There is one matinee at 1 pm on Saturday April 28.




May Diary

Wednesday May 2


Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, MLC Hawthorn at 7:30 pm

Appearing with Kathryn Selby on this tour are violinist Vesa-Matti Leppanen, concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve, principal with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and a regular at these recitals.  Escorted by this Finnish-born duo, Selby brackets her night with arrangements, the more intriguing a transcription of the Brahms B flat Sextet for a piano trio combination.  This was carried out, I believe, by Theodor Kirchner of whom the composer said, ‘Not I, and certainly no one else, can make arrangements of my works as well as Theodor Kirchner.’ In fact, Selby & Co. give us a double dose, beginning their operations with another Kirchner arrangement, this one of Schumann’s Six Pieces in Canonic Form which were written for that odd hybrid, the pedal piano.  The ‘pure’ component in this program is Arensky’s Trio in F minor, the second of the composer’s pair in this form and much less well-known than its D minor predecessor.  This rarity fleshes out one of the year’s more recherche exercises in the Selby and Friends season.


Friday May 4


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

It’s all operetta tonight, with Benjamin Northey conducting the MSO and its Chorus in scraps from the Strausses and Lehar.  Details are sketchy but we are promised The Beautiful Blue Danube and Voices of Spring waltzes from The Son, the second of these calling for a soprano soloist while the first, in its original format, required a male chorus.  On this occasion, the soprano will be Emma Matthews, who will also sing arias from Die Fledermaus and The Merry Widow; I’m guessing she’ll be launching into Mein Herr Marquis or/and Klange der Heimat from the former, and Es lebt’ eine Vilja’ from the latter.  Oddly enough, Viennese music of this school seemed to be part of this country’s aesthetic DNA in the first half of the last century and it still retains many enthusiasts who will probably pack the Town Hall.   Perhaps I have a lingering surfeit from my mother’s family, all of whom were addicts, but I get more impatient than most with contemporary performances of these well-worn pages.  Does anyone remember Willy Boskovsky’s visit here many moons ago?  After that, much of the Strauss we now hear live seems pedestrian.


Saturday May 5


Australian World Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

This time around, the AWO plays two nights in Sydney before coming to Hamer Hall – poor loves.  No soloist is scheduled and the organizers are pinning their publicity on Muti’s participation.  Well, I suppose it will be interesting to see the formidable Italian opera conductor just as he is approaching his final active years.  The program will comprise the Brahms D Major Symphony and Tchaikovsky No. 4: two solid bulwarks of the symphonic repertoire that you can hear pretty much annually during the normal run of MSO concerts.  Also, we are promised a ‘Verdi surprise’, which can only refer to one of the composer’s three neglected sinfonias because there’s nothing else in the catalogue written for orchestra.   But wait: could we be treated to an operatic scrap?  Say, the Triumphal March from Aida? Or the Overture to La forza del destino?  Yes, my money’s on that sort of ‘surprise’ – a theatrical extract to sit comfortably alongside (or between) the two symphonies.


Sunday May 6


Team of Pianists

Barwon Park, Winchelsea at 2.00 pm

If you’re in the neighbourhood, you could do worse with your day in the country than visit this stately if isolated home where senior Team artist Robert Chamberlain tours music’s Four Big B’s with the assistance of Robert Schubert’s clarinet and the cello of Josephine Vains.  Bach is represented by one of his gamba sonatas, the D Major BWV 1028 – yet another of those works we know about but rarely hear.  Naturally, Beethoven’s Gassenhauer Trio gets a hearing – one of the few well-known works for this particular combination of instruments.   As well, the group plays Brahms’ Clarinet Trio in A minor, one of those superlative late flowerings in the composer’s life that came into existence because of his friendship with Richard Muhlfeld.   And, in the centenary year of his birth, we will be treated to music by the last great B.   Not, it’s not Boulez but Bernstein: his Variations on an Octatonic Scale, unpublished in the composer’s lifetime and originally written for recorder and cello but available in a B flat clarinet/cello arrangement. . . which is what you’ll probably get here.


Monday May 7


Markiyan and Oksana Melnychenko

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

A fine Melbourne University faculty violin talent and his pianist mother are taking the high road in a tribute to the influence that jazz has had on 20th century music .  .  .  some of it.  There’s no arguing about the blues and Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2, mainly because of the title that the composer gave to his strutting second movement.  And at least two of Gershwin’s Three Preludes have strong jazz connections, even if the last one seems to me more reminiscent of a Latin American dance; the Melnychenkos play the Heifetz arrangements of them all.   Speaking of the Heifetz-Gershwin connection, the program also offers some selections from the great violinist’s appraisals of Porgy and Bess: take your pick from Summertime, My Man’s Gone Now, A Woman Is A Sometime Thing, Bess, You Is My Woman Now, It Ain’t Necessarily So, and a Tempo di Blues which may be based on There’s A Boat That’s Leaving Soon For New York.  The program’s odd man out is Korngold, whose incidental music to Much Ado About Nothing has some splendid moments but nothing that strikes me as jazzy, although I could be wrong.  In the composer’s own violin/piano suite, there are only four movements out of the original 14: The Maiden in the Bridal Chamber, Dogberry and Verges, Scene in the Garden, and Masquerade: Hornpipe.


Thursday May 10


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Tonight we are being treated to Sir Andrew Davis’ interpretation of the epoch-making Symphony No. 3.   Is there anything new to find in this score?   Well, never say never but I think we should be resigned to a decent run-through, at best.   Keeping the tone upbeat and triumphalist, Moye Chen will be soloist in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1; the Chinese pianist won the George Frederick Boyle Prize at the 2016 Sydney International Piano Competition – in other words, he came third.   Setting the orchestral ball rolling is Carl Vine’s Concerto for Orchestra.   Vine is the MSO’s Composer in Residence for 2018; this work is not one written during his term of office but a 21-minute score composed for the West Australian Symphony Orchestra four years ago.

This program is to be repeated on Friday May 11 in Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, and in Hamer Hall on Saturday May 12 at 2 pm.


Saturday May 12


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Yes, the Frenchman is a harpist; it remains to be seen if he is the one.  What the ABO is presenting to make the case for de Maistre’s superiority amounting to absolute pre-eminence is a mixed bag.   We’ll hear Boieldieu’s Harp Concerto in C from 1800 and a collection of Basque/Spanish encore pieces/transcriptions.  There’s Ravel’s piano solo Pavane pour une infante defunte, the orchestral Spanish Dance from Falla’s La vida breve opera, and the Recuerdos de la Alhambra that Tarrega wrote for guitar.  The ABO itself contributes the Mozart Symphony No. 20 and C. P. E. Bach’s 10-minute Symphony No. 1.  At the end, I thought that the orchestra was going to take on Smetana’s Moldau but this magnificent symphonic poem is a de Maistre solo specialty: he has recently recorded a late 19th century transcription of it by Czech harpist Hanus Trnecek.

This program will be repeated on Sunday May 13 at 5 pm.


Thursday May 17


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

A soprano who impresses more each time you hear her, Greta Bradman will be soloist at this concert which contains no real arias as far as I can tell.  I hope she is presenting Debussy’s Verlaine setting Clair de lune (Votre ame est un paysage choisi) and the MCO is not going to treat us to an orchestral version of the too-familiar Suite bergamasque piano solo.  Without doubt, Bradman will sing the six Ariettes oubliees, also Verlaine texts and strong indicators of the composer’s vocal music character.   Chausson’s Poeme for violin and orchestra will most probably be headed by artistic director William Hennessy;  Faure’s delectable Dolly Suite in Henri Rabaud’s orchestration also appears, as does more Debussy: La soiree dans Grenade from the Estampes triptych, and some selections from the Children’s Corner Suite – all of which piano music is being arranged for the MCO forces by someone as yet unidentified.   On top of this melange comes the premiere of Calvin Bowman’s Ophelie, which brings Bradman back into play; other details are currently not available although the title suggests more Harriet Smithson than Shakespeare.

This program will be repeated at the Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm on Sunday  May 20.


Friday May 18


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

This celebration bounces off with some of the dances from Terpsichore, that excellent collection by the versatile Michael Praetorius.  Director/cellist Howard Penny then takes his young players and ANAM enthusiasts on a (mainly) Baroque tour d’horizon with a Sonata a 10 by the Moravian writer Pavel Vejvanovsky, the Sonata No. 2 from Georg Muffat’s Armonico Tributo, the startlingly-titled Hipocondrie a 7 concertanti and the Sinfonia from the oratorio I penitenti al sepolcro de Redentore by Zelenka, the Balletto No. 1 di zingari by Schmelzer, C. P. E. Bach’s Symphony in F Major (Which one?  There is a choice of three) and a Sinfonia from his father’s Christmas Oratorio (I presume the G Major gem from the second cantata with the quartet of oboes da caccia and d’amore, ho ho).  Handel is heavily represented by his Concerto a due cori No. 2 in F, the overture to his oratorio Jephtha, and selections from the second Water Music Suite, although why only selections puzzles me because the whole collection lasts less than ten minutes.


Sunday May 20


Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea at 6:30 pm

For a recital directing us north of the Pyrenees, this one starts with a geographical clanger.  Violinist Elizabeth Sellars and Team member Rohan Murray begin the night with Beethoven’s A Major Violin Sonata; no, not the Kreutzer, nor the No. 2 from Op. 12, but the Op. 30 No. 1 that many of us have never heard in live performance.  Where the link-up with France lies, I can’t fathom.  Anyway, the musicians then move into Faure’s Op. 13, another A Major Sonata and the more popular of the composer’s two in the form.  Georgy Catoire’s Elegie may have a French title but the composer was Russian, albeit one with French heritage.  The night ends with two Debussy arrangements: the art song Beau soir from the composer’s mid-teens, and La fille aux cheveux de lin that brightens up the first book of Preludes for piano.


Tuesday May 22


Tafelkmusik Baroque Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The Canadian ensemble is back for its third Musica Viva-backed tour, this time concentrating its efforts on the Baroque giant.  What distinguishes Tafelmusik’s presentations is the organization’s use of screen projections, as well as a spoken commentary, the which combination provides both a visual and a verbal environment.  All very nice but what counts is the music and, last time these musicians were here with their  House of Dreams project, I found the playing capable enough but bland.  Tonight, the players are offering the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 – all 12 minutes of it; the Orchestral Suite No. 1, most stolid of the four; and excerpts from the Goldberg Variations, which I’m guessing will not be left to a solitary keyboard player for negotiation.  You’d have to go along with a benign predisposition if only because of the music’s quality but I’m hoping the backdrop doesn’t take over to the extent that it did back in 2015.  Oh, the group has a new director/first violin: Elisa Citterio.

This program will be repeated on Saturday May 26 at 7 pm.


Monday May 28


Ensemble Gombert

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

The Bach is the motet Jesu, meine Freude: one of the most complex of the six works in this form by the composer and a test of any choir’s precision of pitch and differentiation in choral colour.  With Hugo Distler’s Totentanz, the singers take us into a less assured spiritual landscape but one that would be at least slightly familiar to Ensemble aficionados because the organization presented this work at the Xavier College Chapel in September 2016.  It presents a striking sequence of choral and spoken scenes, the crux of the matter being Death’s invitation to his dance, extended to rich and poor, young and old, the musical complexion dissonant but disarmingly aphoristic.


Thursday May 31

Thomas Hampson

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Heading towards his middle 60s, American baritone Hampson is here to take part in the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series.   Is this his first Melbourne visit?   I can’t recall his name emerging from the lists of visitors over previous decades.   While next Thursday he will sing Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Andrea Molino, thus giving us a sample from his most highly acclaimed field of operations, this MRC recital program is yet to be finalised.  Among the composers to enjoy the singer’s services (and those of his accompanist, Maciej Pikulski) are Rossini, Schubert, Saint-Saens, Mahler, Copland  –  ‘and others’.  Which sounds to me as though the bones of a program have been assembled, and space has been left to add some artificial limbs or whatever comes to hand between now and May 31.







Et in Arcadia ego


Arcadia Winds

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday April 16

     (L to R) David Reichelt, Rachel Shaw, Lloyd Van’t Hoff, Matthew Kneale, Kiran Phatak

‘And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.’  It’s an old verse but a welcome one because it sets up the possibility of a perfect death – a matter of increasing concern to those of us in what we laughingly call the twilight phase of our struggle with mortality.  In fact, this recital took its title from a solo clarinet work by Salvatore Sciarrino, a solid challenge in sound manufacture for the Arcadia’s Lloyd Van’t Hoff and rendered all the more atmospherically grim by being presented in near-darkness.

Death  stood at the heart of this event, the very able quintet beginning with Music for a Deceased Friend by Peteris Vasks, a 1981 work written to mourn the early death of bassoonist Jana Barinska.  With an intentionally limited quantity of material, the score still holds great interest for its elegant placement of timbres, even if the Vasks habit of having the players also vocalise brings an unreliable layer to the texture, one entry in particular more than a bit wobbly.   As for the emotional effect, it was not content to stay on one grieving level: Vasks gave us several instances of rage against the dying of this young light, although the employment of a Latvian melody brought a final symbolic acceptance to the piece.

As an opener, this Music brought us into the players’ professional orbit, a place where the functioning of each instrument proved striking.  In the Salon, as everyone knows, there is no room to hide, the acoustic being immediate and dry and every note significant.  Fortunately, these young musicians are highly competent, well-prepared and unafraid to make their statements boldly; yes, you could hear the (very) occasional questionable note, but not two together, and the sense of collegiality – everyone aware of each other’s work – proved to be one of the evening’s major accomplishments, especially in this work where a good deal of the action isn’t circumscribed by time-signatures and/or bar-lines.

As a pacifier of sorts, the Arcadians launched into an arrangement of Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin.  I can’t pinpoint who did the arranging, although you’d have to suspect Mason Jones, because he worked over the specific movements we heard yesterday: Prelude, Fugue (replacing the expected Forlane from Ravel’s own orchestration), Menuet and Rigaudon,  Hans Abrahamsen’s version follows Ravel’s orchestration while the Gunther Schuller scoring for this quintet format comprises all six original piano pieces, including the Toccata finale.

David Reichelt’s oboe enjoyed much of the limelight, particularly in the hectic (for him) Prelude, where he took the lead in generating a suitably burbling melodic stream.  Probably the only fault you could pick with this movement was the overshadowing of Kiran Phatak’s flute which every so often got lost in the briskly mobile texture.  With Ravel’s E minor Fugue, the group ventured into territory that most of us don’t know, unless we’re familiar with the piano original.  Because it has only three lines, the texture remains lucid; added to this, the subject is short and simple, its inversion about a third of the way through given more attention than it merits.  But the players handled it soberly, not trying to dress it up with tricks of over-emphasis or self-effacement for the greater good; only the final open 5th sounded a tad uncertain in its pitching.

In the centre of the Menuet, the tenor-to-bass group of Van’t Hoff, Matthew Kneale’s bassoon and Rachel Shaw’s horn gave a near-menacing gravity to the Musette with its essentially D minor but tonally ambiguous underpinning.  These are pages that suffer from plenty of sloppy treatment when the strings get involved 4 bars after Number 6 in the orchestral setting; no matter how considerate the conductor, the passage’s dynamic jugular suffers an assault.  What a pleasure, then, to hear the dance given with piercing clarity, particularly Shaw’s compelling contribution.  And the Rigaudon came off well enough with a deftness of delivery that complemented its innate optimism.

You could admire Sciarrino and Van’t Hoff in equal measure for the evening’s title piece.  Multiphonics and the tricks of over-blowing have been part of the contemporary composer’s stock-in-trade for decades, although the Italian composer brought a new facet to them with his use of low trills below a top note; well, two notes alternating in the clarinet’s lower reaches is probably a better description.  The piece sets up a sound palette and doesn’t move far from the material of its first page but the sensory and intellectual underload make you concentrate on exactly what you are hearing – which includes the player’s breathing under and between phrases.  It’s a work that combines outward placidity with the obvious strain put on its interpreter to get the notes out.  It would be well worth hearing again but in an environment where the instrument enjoys richer resonance.

Moving away from the death-motif that obtained even in Ravel’s memorials to his World War I companions, the quintet was amplified by the arrival of Luke Carbon and his bass clarinet for a reading of Janacek’s celebration of his own youth, Mladi: for me, the program’s highpoint for the players’ open response  to the composer’s vim-filled essays in reminiscence.  This version might not have had the surging confidence that more experienced ensembles bring to it, but certain moments showed both intelligence and personality, like the self-possessed horn solo at bar 55 in the opening Allegro.

Later, the sextet worked to fine effect to meet the composer’s expressive demands in the Andante which suggests a slow march, only to break out into whirlwind bursts of ferment, the ambience oscillating as recklessly as it does in the middle movement of Janacek’s Sinfonietta or in the final movement of the Kreutzer Sonata String Quartet.  If anything, the group took their time throughout these pages, making sure the contrasts in emotional content enjoyed room to breathe.

The following Vivace gained from Phatak’s bright, staccato piccolo in its rapid-fire outer pages and also from Reichelt’s controlled and unexpectedly warm solos from bar 58 to bar 78, and again at another Meno mosso spot, bars 103 to 116, this latter well-mimicked by Shaw, her horn jumping through a couple of awkward demi-semiquaver hoops at bar 121 without too much fuss.  I would have welcomed more rapidity in the concluding Allegro animato movement, even across the slower-moving interludes; I think the upper three voices could have handled a more brisk assault although getting rapidly repeated pedal notes articulated clearly by the horn, bassoon and bass clarinet would have been a big ask, particularly for Kneale and Carbon in passages like the rapid-tongued muttering between bars 54 and 66.

The Arcadians make a welcome presence on our chamber music scene for several reasons, not the least of which is a concern with promoting the contemporary, an intention clearly illustrated in this hour-and-a-quarter offering.  What is also appealing is a willingness to take on music that requires sheer hard work, like the Janacek sextet which is marvellously rhapsodic and energising to hear but entails massive dedication to gets its components fused and individual timbres balanced.   If you needed it, here was a splendid sample of this gifted ensemble’s talent and potential.




Contemporary gestures but not much there

Avi Avital & Giocoso String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday April 14

            (L to R) Teofil Todica, Martha Windhagauer, Sebastian Casleanu, Bas Jongen

Just as we prepare for the next Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition which is coming up in the first week of July at the Australian National Academy of Music and the Melbourne Recital Centre, here comes a sort of success story from three years ago.  At the 2015 MICMC, the Giocoso String Quartet won Second Prize, the Audience Award and the Musica Viva Prize.  Part of this last involved an MV-sponsored tour, so here are the players, although are they in the original format?

Somewhere over the past few years, violist Adrian Stanciu has been replaced by Martha Windhagauer.   But the original Giocoso personnel remain a mystery, despite my best attempts at research.   In the publicity and program for this tour, the claim is made that this current format dates from 2014, although Stanciu seems to have been around for recording/taping sessions beyond then.

Complicating matters even further is the existence of another Giocoso quartet, made up of British musicians.

At any rate, in this collaboration with mandolinist Avi Avital, the Giocosos were heard in one work by themselves: Schumann in A minor.  What struck me straight away was the dynamic dominance of Windhagauer and cellist Bas Jongen; their entries into the first pages of the Introduzione were robust enough but, when the group swept into the pendant Allegro, the imbalance became quite pronounced.  First violin Sebastian Casleanu impressed for his fine and usually accurate line but neither he nor his partner-at-the-top, Teofil Todica, put up much challenge to their tenor/bass companions when the action quickened.

At times, the players made some odd decisions in their treatment of Schumann’s score; a pause at bar 29 lasted inordinately long and the 6/8 time signature of the Allegro proved hard to determine until an exposed violin made the pulse clear.  Even in the first movement repeat, Jongen’s cello carried more than its fair share of the group’s output.  If you thought this was an aberration, the first sentences of the Intermezzo made a similar impression as Casleanu’s melody line was overshadowed by the parallel motion parts of Todica and Windhagauer; but this movement was treated as a close cousin to the work of its dedicatee, Mendelssohn, even though its content is less redolent of the Athenian forest and more suggestive of a wilder reiter.

In the Adagio, where the first violin took hold of a theme, the viola’s punctuating semiquaver figure that stretches across 12 bars distracted from the upper lyric.  Still, the monothematic Presto-finale saw a more aggressive showing from the ensemble’s upper levels and gave some compensation for a reading that raised serious questions about the Giocosos’ weight distribution.

Avital – last heard here with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra some 17 months ago – joined the quartet for two contemporary works: Elena Kats-Chernin’s take on Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo, enjoying its premiere on this tour, and US-born British writer David Bruce’s Cymbeline.  I don’t know this opera anywhere near as well as L’incoronazione di Poppea but the Australian composer has chosen scraps from Monteverdi’s score on which to elaborate her five movements.  After a quotation from near the opera’s opening, Kats-Chernin sets her usual battery into action with an attention-grabbing motoric drive , employing a modulatory chain worthy of Piazzolla, whose flamboyance somehow comes to mind through all the alarums and excursions.  For a good deal of the time, Avital’s sound came across here as a balalaika substitute with plenty of rapid tremolo.

Not much of moment was accomplished in either of the slower sections – Sea of Weeping and In the Sun and in the Stars – although the duelling in thirds for violins during the latter while Avital dealt with what sounded like a Monteverdi melody was refreshing and non-gimmicky.   For the final Don’t Look Back, Kats-Chernin indulged in a rapid folk dance with Zigeuner flavourings, the whole full of flourishes and a reliance on forward impetus to suggest the fury of the Maenads.  Throughout the work, commissioned for this tour, it seemed to me that nobody was being tested too much, except to maintain the pace; not one of the composer’s most challenging constructs for her musicians or her audience.

Avital chose to play the Bach D minor Violin Chaconne as a solo to show his instrument’s potential.  This might have been spurred by his publicity which was headed by a quote from the Haaretz Daily – ‘Everything you never dreamt a mandolin could do.’  Don’t know about that; everything he did on this night was pretty much what you’d expect this instrument to achieve.   Still, it was a pity he took on this particular work as he was competing with James Ehnes’ splendid account of the whole Partita from five days before.  And, pace the inbuilt limitations of the mandolin, he was also sitting squarely in the shadow cast by Segovia and that phenomenal guitarist’s seminal treatment of the original from more years ago than I’d care to recall  –  a transcription of high distinction that has nevertheless been pooh-poohed by more pretentious guitarists than you could shake a stick at.

Avital gave a brisk interpretation, less inclined to linger than most violinists.  That’s only natural as his mandolin and the actual mode of sound production associated with it don’t allow for sustaining sound or reverberation.  Also, a significant amount of the score’s bravado is dissipated when the violin’s slashing chords are not arpeggiated.  Better news on the emotional landscape where the interpreter gave us three well-defined variation slabs and made each of them a satisfying entity.

The only problems that came across were the occasional buzz when one of the left-hand fingers landed on a fret; which defect, with a ‘live’ instrument like this one, is hard to disguise.

Bruce’s work has nothing to do with Shakespeare and everything to do with the Celtic interpretation of the name: Lord of the Sun.  The piece gives us three scenes, along the lines of Debussy’s La mer: Sunrise, Noon, Sunset.   Like Kats-Chernin’s, this piece is couched in a conservative harmonic vocabulary, setting the scene with plenty of open 5ths and 3rds, the texture highly suggestive of folk-music thanks to a plethora of unisons from the middle strings and melodies that veered to the modal if not the pentatonic.

For his mid-day segment, Bruce begins with a full, powerful declamation from all involved.  His rhythmic structure favours irregularity but the melodic content remains achromatic.  Your attention is attracted by the alternation of regular bar-lengths with one at the end of each clause that has two extra beats in it.  Here, the textural interest comes in duet passages for the mandolin and first violin, accomplished by Avital and Casleanu with excellent synchronicity.

As night nears, Bruce employs a slow descending scale in the first violin although the most striking music comes in a pair of duets for mandolin and cello.  The main impression is of a walking tune, the prevailing ambience suggesting the loose-limbed Grainger as an inspiration but, as well as the Celtic inferences, you can also hear shades of Jewish music – not the bending lines of klezmer stuff, but unadorned folk-tunes.  It all winds down to fine effect as the sun’s journey stops – although when, you’re not quite sure.

Cymbeline made an atmospheric end to a recital that aimed at a higher standard than its executants achieved.  Avital is a gifted performer, committed to every task and challenge and able to give his mandolin a compelling voice.  And it was pleasant to see the potential of the Giocoso musicians, even if (I think) they have some way to travel before another tour would be justified.







The eternity of everything?


Paul Gillett



So much about this is undiscovered territory.   I haven’t seen the 2016 film for which this score was written; the composer is unknown to me; more to the point, the world of film music itself has always been something of a mystery.  A fellow student once tried to teach me some tricks of the trade, mainly to do with how you handle the brass.  He had a wealth of information about trombones in ‘classic’ film music of the 1960s but nothing of that data remains in this memory box.

But music to accompany films – even when given a sort of academic respectability by Schoenberg – is a craft that most of us don’t question, just accepting it as essential scene-setting, an invitation to emotional reaction, possibly even an irritating aural distraction from the visual feast in front of us.  On the one hand, you can enjoy the bloated Hollywood reconstructions that are regularly on offer from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, which is currently involved in the Harry Potter canon: playing the music live to escort us through a screening of whichever film has been chosen for treatment.  On the other, several ensembles make a semi-career of offering music to amplify the impact of silent classics; from my experience, these exercises usually involve original music, but not the original scores.

For all this quibbling, film scores have become an essential part of cinematic practice, even if the products are over-segmented and over-written, following the principle that, if you strike a good tune, don’t let it go (cf. John Williams).   But few are memorable on their own merits, despite the industry’s herculean efforts to expound the merits of soundtrack CDs that have been produced to background instantly forgettable films.  Watching Spielberg’s Ready Player One yesterday, my companion, alert to cultural references, informed me that Alan Silvestri’s soundtrack was packed with references to popular music of several decades ago, as well as lifts from soundtracks to other films.  Which didn’t surprise me as the director was clearly determined, through his screenplay and visual gimmickry, to intrigue the cognoscenti with references to films that impressed him.

For all that, you have to sympathise with Bunuel who grew to use less and less music in his works; starting out with a sequence of random Wagner and tangos for the first screening in 1929 of Un  Chien Andalou, then winding up with absolutely no music for the 1967 Belle de jour.   Despite this admiration, the schizoid in me responds very positively to Duke Ellington’s powerful contributions to Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder from 1959 – a dazzling exhibition of both ensemble and individual brilliance.

Paul Gillett’s work for Cris Jones’ film comprises 21 tracks on this CD, featuring Luke Howard on piano and the Organic Quartet: violins Cameron Jamieson and Natalia Harvey, Matthew Laing viola, Campbell Banks on cello.  The composer notes his own references to particular musical styles, most interestingly his adoption of Nancarrow’s tempo canons.  Gillett also appears on the disc himself, in his guise of Floyd Thursby, singing two mild lyrics:  Time on our hands and Forget the Future.  And I think he accompanies himself, as well as providing the one solo guitar track.

This album opens with Who is Otto Bloom?  Well, in musical terms he seems to be a combination of Shostakovich and Satie, the latter very present in the opening string quartet strophes which suggest both the Gymnopedies and the Gnossiennes, the Russian composer’s shadow present later as the waltz movement gains in emphasis.  What does it propose in emotional terms?  Well, it’s in minor mode, hefty in delivery, not particularly complex but mildly interesting.  The Winter of ’83 has sustained icy upper strings, a piano that outlines a long melody over a steady bass pattern, a small input from the other strings and a satisfyingly bleak ambience.   Retrochronology is a solo piano vignette that irresistibly brings to mind the Andante con moto from Schubert’s E flat Piano Trio; if it’s an homage, it’s fair enough, the modulations unexceptional but, by this stage, you anticipate that Gillett is not going to move far outside an orthodox ambit.

Disorders of Memory alternates a 3/8 and 5/8 pattern in piano and violin rotating around a second inversion A minor chord, the keyboard’s left hand momentarily getting out of phase twice; a mild disorder at worst.  A waltz rhythm dominates The Time Traveller which moves not far outside a steady G minor base but offers little beyond a few piano references to Satie’s Gnossiennes again – possibly Nos. 1 and 3 – in its angularity.  Bonfire Night, another piano solo with a persistent right hand pulse, is puzzling; no Jeux d’artifice explosions of light here.

The first Thursby-persona song is a folksy song, suggestive of Dylan at his simplest, for voice and guitar, which irritates by having nearly every two-line strophe beginning with the word ‘Maybe’.  Because nothing was therefore all things are turns into a quiet ramble for piano that manages to suggest a Bach slow movement before the strings enter with some anaemic sustained notes while the piano references Chopin’s Raindrop D flat Prelude then riffs back to Bach – the middle movement of the Italian Concerto, possibly.

For The Renaissance Man, the compositional approach is back to arpeggios and a texture very much indebted to Phillip Glass, although the chugging rhythm for piano and quartet is going nowhere but straight ahead, without any variants on offer.  The guitar enjoys a solo in Pas de Cent – No hundreds? Not a cent? – which again offers nothing but arpeggios and a bit of electronic chordal shimmering in the piece’s second half; A minor is definitely the tonalite du jour.   The longest track at 5 minutes, Human Time Machine for piano, again references Bach, starting with an angular arpeggio pattern in the right hand, above an unchanging bass D, which then gets the Nancarrow treatment by way of a superimposed tape, I suppose.   As far as I can tell, there are only two upper lines intersecting and coinciding, so the texture is ultra-clear.

At The Backwards Guy, Gillett plays with a pair of impressionist chords in pianist Howard’s left hand while offering a Debussy-suggestive  roaming melody in the instrument’s upper levels – but this interesting track passes all too quickly.  We’re back in Satie waltz territory for Midnight in Byzantium where the piano quintet revisits patterns that are becoming all too familiar.  Ka mura, ka muri has the piano’s two hands moving along two paths that strike me as totally detached; Gillett calls this ‘ a pretty little tempo canon’ – and I suppose it is.  The title is a Maori saying that refers to walking backward into the future, which is the basic premise of Jones’ film in which the protagonist lives his life in reverse.

Einstein’s Letter features lots of sustained chords for string quartet, a kind of mildly grinding mournful chorale.   Precious little infinity is another Nancarrow flight for piano(s) playing a repeated treble pattern with the quartet providing, at first, unison three-note punctuation comments which later move into four-step cadences.  In 38 West 49th St, the piano solo presents a bleak emotional landscape with a sustained final bass chord to dampen the spirits even further.  We’re back with the Human Time Machine pattern for Korsakoff syndrome, although this time cello and viola provide a bass support that oscillates between D and C sharp, the whole concluding with a powerful low D from the piano alone..  It may be a musical illustration of the malady that the track’s title refers to but, as with Disorders of Memory, the effect depicted seems minor.

At what I assume is the film’s focal point, Otto Bloom is dead, Gillett heads for a piano solo slow waltz but only gets through two statements of his theme – a quick demise, then.  Omnia Aeterna is back in chugging post-Glass territory with a predictable series of descending arpeggios and chords.  And Thursby finishes the opus off with another folk-song for guitar and string quartet that aims for the heart-strings: a briskly moving love song that ends with the ambivalent line, ‘When I let you go, I will hold you in my arms’.  This is in keeping, of course, with the off-centre nature of the film’s hero who is fated to recall only his future.

All right: the album is not ground-breaking in its ambition or much more than amiable in its melodic and harmonic content.  But it does establish a sort of world, an Otto Bloom land – to the point where I’d like to see the film and see how Gillett’s work slots into its playing time, as well as discover something about how well he illuminates the director’s intentions and the actors’ efforts.





US on the outside, Oz in the middle


Claire Edwardes

Move Records MD 3416

Artistic director of Ensemble Offspring, Claire Edwardes is almost alone on this CD, although one of its ten tracks features the clarinet of Jason Noble in collaboration with the percussionist’s vibraphone.   Half of the content comes from Melody Eotvos, an Australian composer currently resident in the United States of America, and her contributions seem to have been written for Edwardes and/or her ensemble.  The other local content comes from Damien Ricketson, one of Edwardes’ Offspring colleagues, and the partnership of Marcus Whale and Tom Smith who present the cryptically titled Work: part 1 and Work: part 2.

To open and close the album, Edwardes goes to the North American continent.  Her first gambit is Nostalgia by Canadian composer Vincent Ho, a vibraphone solo that revisits the composer’s percussion concerto, The Shaman.  This slow movement has no modernist terrors but meanders impressionistically around an E flat Major fulcrum before flirting with near-dissonance, then reverting at the last minute to the euphonious simplicity of its opening phrases.  Edwardes is not stretched but gives an attractive, languorous account of pages that have absolutely no distinctiveness.

Closing the disc, Edwardes brings both vibraphone and xylophone into play for a version of Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint of 1982.  Originally for trios of alto flutes, flutes and piccolos and one solo part, all pre-recorded, with a live solo flute part, this work is the second-longest track and – as you’d anticipate – the least interesting.  As usual, scraps are piled on top of each other in a mosaic that masquerades as rhythmically ingenious but is even less satisfying than usual as the displacement of perception towards which these patterns so earnestly aspire borders on the simple-minded.

The tragedy is that this passes for modern-day counterpoint: a going-nowhere layering of lines which divides into discrete sections that seem to start up whenever the composer gets tired of his own lack of invention.  I understand the hypnotic attraction of the minimalist style and practice but can find nothing to admire or engross in its workings.  What is intensely dispiriting is the reduction to basic inanity that a product like Vermont Counterpoint involves.  Our art reaches a contrapuntal mastery in Bach, gets even more complex in Schoenberg and Boulez – and we wind up with this triviality.

Mind you, Reich and his colleagues aren’t totally accountable for a latter-day lowering in compositional craft standards.  The last century started with an explosion of rhythmic possibilities in The Rite of Spring and a few decades later we are confronted by the clod-hopping aesthetic dead-end that is rock; our insights into the ephemeral reach a kind of mini-summit with the Missa Papae Marcelli and the same aspiration results, 400 years later, in Dropkick Me, Jesus, Through the Goal Posts of Life.  Sound artists like Debussy and Schoenberg expand horizons so that modern-day inheritors of their blazoning paths can stand still in the Hollywood film recording studios; Stockhausen and Pousseur explore the potential of electronic sound-manipulation and, some decades later, the personification of trite – the Beatles – assist in bringing any adventurousness to a shameful end by embodying popular music’s morass of sterility.

Take The Work: part 1 which sources its impetus from the Rebonds of Xenakis; that ascription might be accurate, except that the Greek composer’s work does not involve electronics, whereas this score has a chugging, unchanging motorised pulse as its fundamental with some  focused white noise weaving in and out of the texture.  On top, Edwardes plays the dominant line on drums, a stratum that offers an opposition to the underpinning electronic support.  This contrast of the regular with the disjunct works half the time except that the Whale/Smith combination want to have and eat their percussive cake, having the live percussionist offer both a cross-rhythmic Hauptstimme but one that, every so often, falls into line with the support,  In other words, the piece challenges sporadically but doesn’t convince.

With The Work: part 2, the sound material is more intriguing as it involves a piece of garden slate and rocks, although how these sources are manipulated electronically – and they are – escapes me.  Still, it makes for an arresting 5-and-a-half minutes, even if the time that it takes to pass by presents not much more than an invitation to surrender to Edwardes’ state of clairaudience: hearing sounds that you would not encounter in your daily life, music ‘not audible to the normal ear’, as the CD’s leaflet expresses it.

Ricketson’s Time Alone – also for vibraphone and electronics – is the disc’s lengthiest work.  It forms part of an arcane collection that comprises pieces that have been ‘deliberately shielded from public life’: The Secret Noise.  Well, this part of the collection is now very public and, on the face of it, we haven’t been missing much.  A long chain of single vibraphone notes are sounded; about five minutes in, a faint electronic commentary enters for sonorous complementary reasons, gradually rising in importance to challenge the pointillism of the live instrument.

The effect is a good deal more intriguing than The Work, mainly because Ricketson has a finer perception of what to do with his material to keep it fresh, balanced and continuous. Yet again, it can’t be classed as a challenge for Edwardes but she projects the composer’s odd ambition for a construct that is both assimilable and arcane, public and private, with excellent control.

The odd-man-out of Eotvos’ quintet is Leafcutter, written in 2012 for vibraphone and clarinet.  It functions as the composer’s tribute to leafcutter ants, specifically the females for their path to procreation and founding individual colonies.  Both instruments pursue busy and continuous intersecting paths that suggest industry and a benign single-mindedness that eventually fades to inactivity when, I suppose, all the necessary work has been achieved and the ants can rest.  It’s hard to find any comparisons; Eotvos’s mobile linear interplay suggests a Hindemith-like rigour but the score’s bubbling inexorability sounds like early Boulez.  For all that, this creative voice is disciplined and individualistic.

The other four Eotvos works come from a collection called Counterpoint where the composer, Edwardes and three poets  –  Luka Lesson, Jessica L. Wilkinson, Margaret West  –  came together to create, their aesthetic congress resulting in a series of poems and music that, living up to the title, interweave and balance each other.  Lesson is responsible for How does a Miller and No Man, Wilkinson for And I was Tired and Book of Flying; West goes unrepresented.

Each piece has its own timbre world.  In How does a Miller, Edwardes employs tom toms, bass drum and electronics in a fusion of primitive and sophisticated.  Long on supple patting rather than pounding, the atmosphere delineated is rather menacing.  Somewhere along the way, I think Lesson recites his own lines; they are distorted intentionally and so are incomprehensible.

And I was Tired involves cymbal, waterphone, crotales and electronics and the poet’s recitation is almost clear while Eotvos relishes introducing us to the waterphone’s suggestiveness.  This is a more rhythmically emphatic construct to start with before moving into impressionistic amblings for its second-part, with isolated distorted words the sole point of reference.

Back comes the vibraphone (and electronics)  for Book of Flying which has no spoken text, although it was one of two poems I was able to track down.  Edwardes lays on the vibraphone repeated clusters with a will and you can hear definite mimicry of the fly noted in Wilkinson’s lines.  Yet the achievement is not that impressive, possibly because it seems happy in its own haiku-like stasis.

Naturally, the vibraphone and electronics feature in Lesson’s No Man, as well as the almglocken or tuned cowbells which for my generation have an unbreakable link with Mahler.  Edwardes indulges in a sturdy brand of mild aggression – but you could say the same about much of Counterpoint – before Lesson speaks his four lines en clair.  The latter part of the piece is a series of distortions of this spoken material. improving on the original’s flat delivery but bringing to mind how much more adventurous and daring were similar experiments like Stockhausen’s Gesang der Junglinge from over 60 years ago.

Nevertheless, this experimental music+verse exercise demonstrated an aspiration towards true creativity.  The results might be uneven but Eotvos and her multi-talented interpreter give us on this CD a much-needed collection of how music might be advanced, taken outside its self-satisfied strictures and hauled into something approaching a musical landscape that builds on the past, proposing the new rather than wallowing in pointless populism.







Just long enough


Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne

Thursday March 15

The opera was also performed on Friday March 16 at 6:30 pm, and on Saturday March 17 at 1 pm and 5 pm.

                                      Jeremy Kleeman, Timothy Reynolds, Brenton Spiteri

Not much to report here.  Norman Lindsay’s story for children about a pudding that keeps on giving is now 100 years old and the state company decided to resuscitate the opera that it commissioned in 2013 to observe this literary centenary.  Quite a few of the central cast members have returned: Timothy Reynolds as Bill Barnacle, Nathan Lay playing Bunyip Bluegum,  Jeremy Kleeman as Albert the Pudding, and Carlos E. Barcenas reviving his athletic Judge.

All of the secondary principals are Victorian Opera Youth Artists for 2018: Georgia Wilkinson (Narrator), Shakira Dugan (Wombat/Rooster), Shakira Tsindos (Possum), Douglas Kelly (Constable/Hedgehog) and Stephen Marsh  (Benjimen Brandysnap). Actually, this last-named plays a significant part in the action during the later ‘slices’ of Lindsay’s story.  But the major cast change is Brenton Spiteri replacing Daniel Todd as Sam Sawnoff, that improbable outback penguin.

As for off-stage changes, Fabian Russell took over direction of the pit, following Daniel Carter’s 2013 stint.   Director Cameron Menzies returned, as did the set and costumes of Chloe Greaves and the lighting design of Peter Darby.

Calvin Bowman’s score still impresses for its open-handed breeziness, the composer’s inbuilt tunefulness a constant feature of the opera’s progress – in solos certainly, but also at moments like the trio that ends Slice One where Bill and Sam invite Bunyip to join their Pudding-Owners’ Guild.  Bowman’s intention was hardly to write flamboyant, technically taxing lines – although Narrator Wilkinson enjoyed some high tessitura calisthenics – but more to reflect the amiable simplicity of Lindsay’s characters, both good and bad.

Anna Goldsworthy made no bones about using as much of the original text as she could fit into the work’s short time-span.  And why not?  The Magic Pudding has an appealing combination of vernacular and tongue-in-cheek pomposity that gives older readers a nostalgic glimpse at former times; it’s as though people of my generation are hearing our grandfathers talking.  This is not just derived from the actual words, of course, but more the quirky turns of phrase and a rhetorical fluency that reminds you of how real conversations used to be conducted.

The action is kept simple enough, the confrontations between rightful Pudding-Owners and their conniving opposition suitably slapstick, and Lindsay’s four slices run smoothly into each other.   In fact, the only point where you could be left puzzled is in the last segment at Tooraloo where the rationale behind the court scene remains fuzzy.  The case for theft is brought by the two thieves, but why do these accusers wind up in the dock?

Still, the work moves smoothly.  Reynolds does a fine line in mildly aggressive salt-of-the-earth honesty;  Spiteri gives his dialogue a forceful energy; as the Pudding, Jeremy Kleeman has a fine time, manipulating and vocalising with well-honed elasticity and a powerful suggestion of put-upon rancour.   While it was hard to penetrate Carlos E. Barcenas’ diction, his Judge ‘s physicality gingered up the courtroom scene just when it was needed; and Marsh’s Benjimen made a welcome common-sense presence when things looked darkest for our put-upon heroes.

Both Dugan and Tsindos as the thieving Wombat and Possum leaped into their roles with plenty of vim, in the process making the occasional sacrifice in clarity of diction; Douglas Kelly’s lawman hit exactly the right tone for Lindsay’s none-too-bright Constable.  But the cast member who dominated your attention was Lay; even if his first entrance left him with little to do to fill in some awkward bars, his vocal quality proved well-judged for the action’s environment, packed with bounce and gifted with a kind of bracing vigour that doesn’t have to try hard to be effective.

As far as I could tell, Russell faced very few coordination problems between singers and pit; not surprising, because the score is as transparent as that for an early Savoy opera and Bowman’s orchestration is calculated for clarity: a string quintet, flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, one percussionist, and pianist Phillipa Safey the solo revenant below-stage from the first production.

The Youth and Community Chorus that operated on both sides of the Playhouse’s stage knew what they had to do in terms of action – little enough, as it turned out – but I would have expected a bigger sound from what was a large pair of choral bodies.  I understand the production will travel to Wodonga and Bendigo, picking up a local chorus in each town; let’s hope they blast out their lines more confidently than their metropolitan peers.

At the end, my 11-year-old guest rated the experience a 9.9/10, her sole caveat the slight lag before Barcenas went on his manic rave/dance.  It was a bit of a hiatus but, at the end, the opera is cut to the right proportions, a clear success with the younger audience members and a source of pleasure to us seniors who bemused most of our charges by laughing at odd places: a testament to Lindsay’s old-fashioned humour and this opera creators’ talent at preserving it intact.





April Diary

Thursday April 5

Debussy & Brahms

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

There’s a sort of safety in programming easily imbibable matter at the start and end of a concert.   Conductor Jun Markl has recorded both the Debussy Nocturnes that open this program and the Brahms Symphony No. 4 which closes it; in  other words, he’s not being stressed.  Nor are the MSO or the Ladies of the orchestra’s chorus who get to ooh-aah in the third of the Debussy collection, Sirenes.  The occasion’s real interest comes in the middle with a premiere: Australian composer Mary Finsterer’s Double Concerto Missed Tales III – The Lost.  This work asks for viola and cello soloists; the MSO’s principal viola, Christopher Moore, is on board but apparently the orchestra’s cellos were unable or unwilling to take up the challenge as the lower-string soloist is Timo-Veikko Valve from the Australian Chamber Orchestra.  There’s a Missed Tales I – Lake Ice for orchestra but I can’t track down a middle one in the series, although Finsterer’s trend in this regard appears to involve concertos for string/s.

This program will be repeated in Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, on Friday April 6 at 7:30 pm


Saturday April 7


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

The Debussy observances continue at ANAM with a solid recital headed by visiting guru Roy Howat in collaboration with some of the Academy’s bright young things.  For example, a cellist will be required for two rarities: a very early Nocturne and Scherzo which appears to have no nocturne, and an Intermezzo from the same year (1882) which should involve an orchestra behind the cello.  Before the complete Book 1 Preludes, we hear a grab-bag of stand-alone piano solos: the Ballade, La plus que lente, Masques, and D’un cahier d’esquisses.  You’d have to assume that the fare on offer will be shared around, or will Howat take on the lot?


Monday April 9

James Ehnes

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

This very personable Canadian violinist is next in the MRC’s Great Performers series, justifiably so.  He is focused on Bach for this solo recital and begins with the composer’s blockbuster Partita No. 2 in D minor, the one that ends with the massive Chaconne that  impressed a generation of pianists so much that they re-vamped it for their own instrument – Brahms for the left hand alone, Busoni and Siloti for the keyboard’s full range; not to mention Segovia’s guitar transcription or Stokowski’s orchestration.  Ehnes ends with the Partita No. 3 that starts with the Preludio familiar as the Sinfonia from the Wir danken dir, Gott cantata and holds the well-known Gavotte en rondeau among its pages.  Speaking of the centre, Ehnes uses the two partitas to bookend the Sonata in C, notable for its gripping and lengthy Fuga.  In essence, what he’s playing is the second half of Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas.  He’s also up for a masterclass the following night in the Salon at 6 pm.


Monday April 9


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

This pair of Melbourne appearances from the ACO is temporally out of whack; the Monday second-night comes first and the usual Sunday first Melbourne concert appears a fortnight later.   Whatever the scheduling ins and outs, the program revolves around Australian soprano Car and Richard Tognetti has done his best to match her solos with some relevant or comfort-inducing orchestral surrounds.   For example, the night begins with Handel’s 1728 opera Alcina – the Overture and Dances; then Car emerges for Mozart’s 1778 Basta/Ah, non lasciarmi concert aria.   Satu Vanska uses her Stradivarius for Beethoven’s salonesque F Major Romance before the soprano launches into the composer’s own concert aria,  Ah! perfido – almost contemporaneous with the violin solo.  Hildegard’s response Ave Maria, O auctrix vite should also employ a lot of Vanska in its transcription for strings, but then we make a ludicrous jump forward 700 years for Car to sing Desdemona’s Ave Maria from Verdi’s opera Otello.  The evening ends with more Mozart: another concert aria – Misera/Ah! non son io – and the Symphony No. 27, although why we couldn’t have heard the aria’s almost-contemporaneous Haffner Symphony No. 35 beats me.

This program will be repeated on Sunday April 22 at 2:30 pm.


Friday April 13


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

James Ehnes features in this series from the MSO, fronting a violin concerto by a Pulitzer Prize winner.  Conductor for the three concerts will be Muhai Tang who was active with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra for some years but, as far as I can recall, did not venture south of the Murray.  He opens his account with the Brahms Tragic Overture, and sends us all home with the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony’s resounding triumphalism to keep our spirits up.  The concerto comes from Aaron Jay Kernis, a Yale-connected composer/academic whose vocabulary is described as eminently agreeable with something to please everybody.   Not the best encomium but I warmed to him when I learned that he took on a complaining Zubin Mehta who was whingeing about the lack of detail in one of Kernis’ scores, to which the young composer responded, ‘Just read what’s there.’   In other words, do your job – an instruction that should be etched into the music-stand of every musician prepared to posture at the podium.

This program will be repeated on Saturday April 14 at 7:30 pm and on Monday April 16 at 6:30 pm.


Saturday April 14

Avi Avital & Giocoso Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The popular mandolin virtuoso has the good fortune to be playing at this Musica Viva recital in collaboration with the group that won the Musica Viva and Audience Prizes at the last Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition in 2015.  Sharing the load, the Giocosos start the ball rolling with Schumann’s String Quartet No. 1 in A minor.  Avital joins them at night’s end for American-born writer David Bruce’s Cymbeline from 2013, written for this particular mandolinist.  Apparently, the composer means no reference to be made to Shakespeare but to the meaning of the word itself: Lord of the Sun.  Someone is playing the Chaconne from Bach’s D minor Violin Partita; I’m assuming Avital will undertake his own transcription, rather than Sebastian Casleanu or Teofil Todica putting on an extra-ensemble solo.  Elena Kats-Chernin’s Orfeo will enjoy its first performances on this tour; it also is written for the mandolin/string quartet combination.

This program will be repeated on Tuesday April 24.


Tuesday April 17


Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne at 7:30 pm.

Elijah Moshinsky’s production is back for yet another outing with Michael Yeargan’s sets and Peter J. Hall’s costumes.  But who cares?  It’s the singing that counts and, as Violetta, the company is offering Corinne Winters, a young American soprano who sang the role last year at the Royal Opera; well, it’s a start.  Alfredo falls to Korean tenor Yosep Kang until the last two performances when another Korean, Ho-Yoon Chung, takes over; Kang has sung the role at Deutsche Oper Berlin, Chung in Verona.   OA regular Jose Carbo enjoys the ultimate in spoiling roles as Germont pere; Dominica Matthew has the thankless task of Flora and John Longmuir takes Gastone. The season is conducted by Carlo Montanaro who has directed this opera at La Scala, Warsaw, Oviedo and Cincinatti; he probably has much to bring to the work – he’ll need to.  Why this insistence on previous experience?  Hard to explain but I’m hoping for a cast that doesn’t simply go through the motions; a shame as this stilted production works against any performing liberties.  And we wait with bated breath for the Act 2, Scene 2 Spanish/Gypsy dancing!

The opera will be repeated on Saturday April 21, Monday April 23, Saturday April 28. Monday April 30, Wednesday May 2, Friday May 4, Tuesday May 8 and Friday May 11. All performances are at 7:30 pm except for Saturday April 28 which is a 1 pm matinee.


Thursday April 19


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University at 7:30 pm

Has the MSO taken these contemporary music concerts to Monash before?  Not sure and am even more unsure how individual works will sound in this hall made for large-scale music.  This year, the festival’s guest is South Korean composer Unsuk Chin, whose Su will enjoy its Australian premiere; a concerto for sheng, the soloist will be Wu Wei whose playing persuaded Chin to write for Oriental instruments.   And she does herself proud with an impressive percussion battery as well as a normal-sized orchestra, although some of the strings are positioned around the auditorium.   Chin’s ParaMetaString for string quartet and tape dates from 1995, one of the earlier works in the composer’s catalogue; it will call on the services of the Australian String Quartet which is headed by the MSO’s concertmaster, Dale Barltrop.  The ASQ will also play Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1, Metamorphoses nocturnes, to begin this program, which also contains the world premiere of young Australian Ade Vincent’s Hood Yourself in Stars.   American/British musician Clark Rundell conducts


Saturday April 21


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Robert Blackwood Hall at 7:30 pm

Tonight, an even heavier dose of Unsuk Chin with three Australian premieres of her music.  The MSO under Clark Rundell begins with the South Korean composer’s Rocana, Sanskrit for ‘room of light’ which asks for a large orchestra and a massive percussion battery.  Then, Puzzles and Games, written last year, which is based on Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland and, as well as the percussion-heavy orchestra, asks for a soprano soloist; in this instance, Tasmanian-born Allison Bell.   Ligeti’s Atmospheres, memorable for its use in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, will also enjoy an outing, nearly 60 years after its premiere.   And Chin winds up the night – and these concerts (only two?)  –  with her Violin Concerto, American virtuoso Jennifer Koh as soloist.  I’m not sure how the festival is expected to survive this spatial division, with the two major orchestral concerts at Clayton while the smaller recitals remain at Southbank.  Or perhaps the MSO’s annual, shrinking gestures towards music of our time are becoming too expensive to run.


Sunday April 22


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm

More chamber than most MCO concerts, this afternoon boasts the rarely-performed Octet by Schubert, which calls for a string quintet and three wind.  The strings are MCO personnel: violins William Hennessy and Markiyan Melnychenko, viola Merewyn Bramble, cello Michael Dahlenburg and bass Emma Sullivan, while the three wind will be Lloyd van’t Hoff on clarinet, Matthew Kneale’s bassoon and the horn of Anton Schroeder.  The string quartet format isolates itself for Beethoven’s Serioso Op. 95 and the occasion is spiced up by a new work from pianist/composer Christopher Martin which bears the not-exactly-revolutionary title of Passepied.  Eventually, the program will be played in  Daylesford on Saturday April 21 at the Anglican Christ Church in that sleepy hamlet, but you can also hear it in the Salon – well, the Octet only, it seems – with canapes and wines on Tuesday April 24, although this is only for the seriously well-heeled MCO enthusiast as admission comes in at $199 a pop.


Tuesday April 24 


Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne at 7:30 pm

The national company is not exactly breaking the originality bank so far this season.  Here comes Puccini’s melody-rich and popular sample of opera noir with American soprano Latonia Moore as the heroine and Diego Torre as her lover Cavaradossi.  Moore sang the title role in the Lincoln Centre two years ago, while Torre has sung his part every year since 2013 with Opera Australia, or Florida Grand Opera, or at the Saarlandisches Stadtstheater in Saarbrucken, or in the Teatro Communale di Bologna.  Scarpia brings Marco Vratogna to the State Theatre, another Royal Opera House bass-baritone who has sung this role there twice and also notably in Baden-Baden under Simon Rattle.  So far, so good.  The filler roles are company regulars: Gennadi Dubinsky (Angelotti), Luke Gabbedy (Sacristan), Benjamin Rasheed (Spoletta), Michael Honeyman (Sciaronne), Tom Hamilton (Jailer).  Andrea Battistoni conducts and he has the opera in his considerable repertoire, surprising for a musician who is barely over 30.   John Bell directs the production set in Nazi-era Germany, last seen here in 2014.

The work will be repeated on Thursday April 26, Saturday April 28, Tuesday May 1, Saturday May 5, and Thursday May 10.  All performances are at 7:30 pm except for Saturday May 5 which is a 1 pm matinee.


Friday April 27


Australian National Academy of Music

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

The ANAM Orchestra is making a splash with this concert, moving to the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the MRC and having no soloists so that attention focuses on conductor Jose Luis Gomez, music director of the Tucson Symphony.  As you’d hope, there’s some Bernstein on the program – the Divertimento for orchestra, an 8-movement flamboyant suite written for the Boston Symphony’s centenary; and the Overture and a 5-movement suite from Candide.   The night begins with my favourite Ginastera construct, the Variaciones concertantes of 1953, then dips its lid to other Americans through Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (1942) and Barber’s Adagio for Strings (1936).  What all these have in common with Bernstein’s output escapes me; everything could be related, but I can’t see how.  Still, it’s all calculated to keep the young ANAMers on edge.


Sunday April 29


The Melbourne Musicians

St. John’s Lutheran Church, Southgate at 3pm

Casting an eye over the father of Western music and his sons, Frank Pam and his orchestra begin with what I assume will be the Dissonant F Major Sinfonia by Wilhelm Friedemann, F.67, notable for his eccentric trail-blazing.  Then Carl Philipp Emanuel’s Flute Concerto in A Major H. 438 will be headed by Sydney flautist Bridget Bolliger.  Bach Senior is represented by arias from the Coffee Cantata; as the only soloist advertised is soprano Sarah Lobegeiger de Rodriguez, you’d have to assume that these will be Ei! Wie schmeckt der Kaffee susse and Heute noch, lieber Vater; the first of these requires a flute to flesh out Pam’s string ensemble.   Johann Christian Bach, the family’s semi-success, appears with a Sinfonietta in C Major which I can’t trace at all in the long list of the composer’s orchestral works although there are three likely possibilities.  Finally, we hear from Johann Christoph Friedrich, a Sinfonia in D minor that must be the Wf 1:3: the manuscript of this piece was one of the few orchestral works by this composer that survived the World War II bombing of Berlin.  It all makes for an excellent chance to hear the source and his products together in one place.





Played to order


Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College

Wednesday March 14


                                                                     Grace Clifford

Kathryn Selby appears to have made the change from Federation Square’s Deakin Edge to this MLC venue in Kew/Hawthorn very successfully.  I wasn’t present at the final series recital last year, the first in the Tatoulis Auditorium, but this all-Beethoven night looked close to having sold out all 360-odd seats; clearly, a large group of her patrons have followed Selby east of the city.  Let’s hope these numbers stay high.

Of course, the impresaria/pianist was catering to her followers shamefully with this first program for 2018.   Last year, she polled her audiences in each state, asking what Beethoven they would all like to hear, and the results were unremarkable.   For the piano trio format, patrons wanted the Archduke – surprise, surprise.  From the cellist, the popular pick was the A Major Sonata, as opposed to the more interesting Op. 102 double; the violinist had to take up the Spring Sonata No 5, rather tan the dazzling Kreutzer No. 9 or the gripping C minor No. 7.

Selby inserted her own curtain-opener with the Allegretto in B flat WoO.39 which gets listed in the inventory of Beethoven’s piano trios but only just, as a work without a catalogue number.  An amiable single movement with unexpected subtleties, it’s yet another one where the piano sets the pace, having first dibs at all the material while the two strings spend most of their time repeating the subjects or providing sustained chords and ephemeral passage-work.  Still, this short fragment enjoyed carefully shaped treatment from Selby and her guests, violinist Grace Clifford and cellist Clancy Newman, both of whom have appeared previously in this series back in its city-based days.

In fact, Clifford made a serious impression on Melbourne when she performed Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 under Benjamin Northey with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra two years ago.  Since then, her production has become even more refined, displayed in its best light during her reading of the Beethoven sonata on this night.  It shouldn’t be hard to credit by those who have encountered her before, but the opening Allegro last Wednesday night was remarkably pure in projection, Clifford filling each corner of this decently-sized space with an individual timbre; not overdoing the vibrato or taking any distracting dynamic or rhythmic liberties – just a calm, luminous account of very familiar pages.

Both collaborators found an even easier working relationship in the work’s Adagio, sustaining the music’s pulse through some ornate figuration, then skittering past the insubstantial Scherzo.  Yet Clifford shone at her best in the rondo-finale with a splendid sonorous arch at the start that delighted for its clarity and self-possessed ardour, qualities that remained evident throughout the movement’s piano-flattering progress.

Newman’s view of the A Major Cello Sonata is a highly theatrical one, emphatically so in both outer movements.  Each dynamic shift was given full weight, starting with the first A minor passage after the string instrument’s first ad libitum interlude at bar 23.  Then the forte launch into E major at bar 64 punched us between the ears, as it did on its recurrence at bar 201 when I thought the cellist’s pizzicati were turning into percussive Bartokian snaps.  It kept you involved, for sure, but the movement’s unfolding came about punctuated by a sequence of shocks that interrupted the score’s usually even deliberation.

Later in the Allegro vivace conclusion to the sonata, Newman relished his stretches in the tenor and treble clefs to give Selby a good deal of competition throughout a pretty rapid treatment of these toccata-suggestive pages.  For all his driving energy, this cellist is near-faultless in his pitching of notes and has that vital necessity for any player attempting this work: he can be heard all the time, whether sustaining semibreve bass notes or striving against the keyboard’s fortissimo passage-work as at bars 209-212.

The players re-grouped for the Archduke and handled its pages with an easy familiarity.  In fact, Newman seemed to have a lot of it by heart and kept both eyes on Clifford’s bowing arm for much of the opening three movements, an observance that resulted in some fine close collaboration in the work’s Andante cantabile, like the second duet-strophe for both strings that rivalled the best readings I’ve heard, and their later collaboration after the piano stops faffing about and settles into the final re-statement and coda – pages that crown the preceding variations with consoling beneficence.

As a small observation, have you heard another pianist who can handle this work’s scherzo with as much calm authority as Selby?  I don’t just mean the eruption into a D flat Major waltz at bar 160, although that is briskly treated with exactitude always, but just simple statements like the piano entry at bar 16 which in her hands comes over with a sort of pert diffidence, trippingly on the tongue.

All the more remarkable because I had my doubts about the instrument that Selby used. While investigating the facilities at MLC last year, she found an old Bosendorfer grand in the music school’s storage  space and thought how appropriate such an instrument would be for a program of this character.   Quite right, even if these pianos-with-a-pedigree make you work harder than a modern-day Steinway or Yamaha.  The venerable German giant brought a powerful bloom to all four pieces but it struck me that Selby was tiring halfway through the Archduke finale, by about the point where the keyboard gets the sextuple shakes at bar 152 and keeps them going till arriving at bar 184.  For all that, you couldn’t fault the vivacity of the Presto conclusion, even if the victory impressed as hard-won.