Starting the year embryonically

AUSTRALIAN HAYDN ENSEMBLE – MOZART – VIENNESE STAR

Australian Haydn Ensemble String Quartet

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Monday March 14, 2022

Skye McIntosh

Streaming once again from Chatswood’s Concourse Theatre, this Australian Digital Concert Hall recital was given by members of the worthy Sydney ensemble: artistic director Skye McIntosh, AHE regular Matthew Greco in violin 2 position, viola Karina Schmitz who may be just passing through on her way back to America, and cellist Daniel Yeadon without whom no period music performance in this country can lay claim to credibility. On paper, the quartet makes an impressive group; in the flesh, I’m afraid that these players have a fair way to travel before convincing us that they speak with one voice. Currently, the AHESQ fails to satisfy on a number of important levels.

We were presented with three works: Haydn Op. 33 No. 5 in G Major, Boccherini Op. 32 No. 5 in G minor, and the great Mozart K. 465 in C Major. Fine – an excellent launch to this year’s AHE season, if a tad chaste in personnel. But then, the live audience was not strong in numbers, as far as I could tell from the broadcast – unless a large crowd was packed into the back stalls. And I was hard pressed to find anyone in the crowd younger than (let’s be kind) 60. Not that there are any proscriptions currently in operation for events like this recital; venue organizers can ask those in attendance to wear masks, but I didn’t see any being worn. And, while it appears to be a pleasant enough space, what’s the Chatswood attraction? Previous online events show that CBD venues in Sydney have trouble attracting audiences, let alone the young; why promenade your wares in an ultra-conservative demographic that might as well block independently-thinking ne’er-do-wells from travelling further up the line at North Sydney?

Sadly, of the three works performed, I found the group’s Haydn to be the most unsatisfying. During the initial Vivace assai, first violin notes kept disappearing as early as bar 11. But McIntosh wasn’t alone: the ambient texture sounded scratchy and scrappy. Still, the first violin’s dominance is inbuilt and attracts your attention continuously – not always to a performance’s betterment, as the flimsy top notes across bars 21 and 22 demonstrated, and later a clumsiness in attack at bars 134-5. Up to this night, the players had performed in Canberra, Berry and up the road from there in Burrawang, so their roughness of ensemble surprised and disappointed.

Even in the relative safety zone of this quartet’s Largo, the question of weight distribution arose as problematic, like the accompaniment provided by second violin and viola in tandem for much of the piece’s length. As well, the uniformity of attack proved a moveable feast – either scatter-gun or over-aggressive (bar 44) – while the firm concluding measures lacked subtlety of dynamic. In the opening to Haydn’s scherzo, we were left up in the air rhythmically because of the inchoate chromatic scale across bars 4 and 5. Luckily, the trio made a more positive impression – but then, it’s four-square by comparison.

Refreshing to hear Greco and Schmitz being exposed in bar 33 of the set-of-variations finale, and Schmitz and Yeadon partnering for the penultimate excursion before Haydn moved to Presto and thereby brought about a much-needed infusion of verve and punch across that 26-bar stretch. However, this concluding glimpse of energy was insufficient to rescue a reading that seemed to be tinkering at the edges without giving the composer’s work its robust due.

Apart from devotees who have graduated beyond the Minuet from the E Major String Quintet and that entertaining mini-tone poem, La Ritirata di Madrid, most of us don’t know Boccherini’s 100 string quartets. Which is a pity, as this program’s central work demonstrated. Like the contemporary Haydn work just heard, this score favours the first violin, although Greco came in for a few partnership moments. Certain moments stood out, like McIntosh’s deft triplets peppered through the opening Allegro comodo‘s development. During the Andantino, Boccherini generated a well-tilled field of rhythmic titillations through the contrast of triplets with straight 3/4 crotchet passages. Happy to report that the ensemble’s unanimity of attack was pretty fair here, apart from a notable early strike from someone at the start of the movement’s fourth-last bar.

The composer gave his interpreters a good deal of interweaving and individual highlighting during the Minuetto con moto, the players here dealing out several clever touches, especially in the Trio‘s second part. Indeed, this movement generated some passages of individuality where the participants invested a certain layer of personality in their work, the which persisted into the concluding Allegro giusto where you gained some insight into how brisk and clear this music could be. McIntosh’s back-to-Bach Capriccio ad libitum cadenza sent a minor shock-wave through these ear-drums, probably because of the performer’s relish in the triple-stop chords that interrupted Boccherini’s busy-work demi-semiquavers.

Here was an intriguing inclusion in this recital book-ended by unquestionable and familiar masterworks. It gave plenty of indications – if they were needed – of the Italian writer’s capacity for originality and delight in experiment; nothing exceptional or disturbing like the opening passage of what was coming after this night’s interval, but venturing into the unexpected and not weighing down his lower-voiced players with supplementary pap.

Despite some drawbacks, the final piece proved the night’s most satisfying experience, in part because of the group’s employment of vibrato and the consequent production of a less strident sound colour, even in the chromatic meanderings of Mozart’s opening Adagio. Not everything went swimmingly, Yeadon sounding stressed for no apparent reason at bars 101 to 102. But the writing quality had moved onto a more finished plane than that which obtained in the program’s other content so far; even the polyphonic interplay was more satisfyingly couched and striking, as at the eloquent entry from Schmitz at bar 45. As well, the musicians allowed a fluency to their delineation of metre and pulse, giving space for moments of individual difficulty which is one of the vital requirements in chamber playing.

It’s the composer’s genius, of course, that carries off his opening Allegro, evident in the subtle changes that tittivate the recapitulation. But the performance was not able to maintain its sometimes worthy standard, displaced by odd distractions like an uneven first violin-viola duet across bars 225 and 226 and an absence of joyful elation in the effusiveness that begins in bar 235: that brilliant final gesture that carries us to the subdued final six bars.

Such imbalance in weighting also bedevilled the Andante cantabile, in particular the dynamic shifts that begin at bar 31 where the tailoring of voices proved to be something of a catch-as-catch-can affair. Across some pages, it struck me that the central pair – second violin and viola – had moved into a dynamically congruent space that sat at odds with the top and bottom lines. But the balance hadn’t improved by the time the ensemble reached that simple set of detached repeated chords in bar 81, and imperfections like that meant that these pages as a unit failed to capture this mind and heart.

Mozart’s Menuetto had its moments under these hands, despite occasional disruptions like the squeaky last F crotchet in bar 42, and several questionably pitched leaps in the Trio‘s second part. What you missed in the minuet itself was a sense of continuity; as it came across, you heard amiable scraps, if carried out with welcome fervour. I liked McIntosh’s manipulation of the metre in the opening strophes of the Allegro molto, slightly bending its shape up to the end of the first subject’s treatment at bar 34. In fact, this movement flew past with pleasing polish to the point that I was sorry we heard no exposition repeat – the only practicable one omitted throughout the night. This finale yielded a number of real pleasures, like the splendid duet for McIntosh and Yeadon beginning at bar 308 and an informed elegance at bar 391, and later at bar 404: points where other quartets batter the notes with Beethovenian passion. Certainly, this movement gave the program a convincing conclusion, if not one that wiped out the memory of a tentative Haydn interpretation and an absence of character in that unexpectedly original Boccherini.

But is it?

SCHUMANN CELLO

Zoe Knighton & Amir Farid

Move Records MD 346 1

Not that I’m complaining – overmuch – but this CD’s title is ambiguous, if not misleading. Both Schumanns are treated here: Clara and Robert. Clara, I hear you cry? Yes: it’s far-fetched because the finest pianist of her time didn’t write anything for cello and piano – the only instruments in play when Zoe Knighton and Amir Farid are the featured artists. Although a short frisson of hope rose when I saw the CD’s accompanying leaflet.

Clara Schumann’s chamber music includes a piano trio and a violin sonata – and that’s all. What we’re given here are three of her song-cycles, and no – Knighton does not display another side to her talents but uses her instrument as a substitute for the vocal line to the Op. 12 Three Ruckert Lieder, the Op. 13 Six Songs, and the Sechs Lieder aus ‘Jucunde’, Op. 23. As for Robert Schumann, his output involving cello as an individual voice is more substantial, including the A minor Concerto, three piano trios, the piano quintet and quartets, and one definite cello/piano duet: Funf Stucke im Volkston. This last-named is included on this CD, as well as one of two other pieces where the cello is a possible participant: the Fantasy Pieces Op. 73 that the composer wrote for the clarinet/piano combination but allowed for violin or cello, just as he did for the Op. 70 Adagio and Allegro – originally for horn and piano, but capable of transference to violin or cello.

The Knighton/Farid combination has produced a fair swag for Move Records, including an album of pretty much everything Mendelssohn wrote for this combination; ditto Beethoven; a Russian catch-all, including Prokofiev’s Op. 119; Debussy’s sonata finishing off a French collection with lots of arrangements; and an Argentine Tango CD with only one Piazzolla track (a remarkable accomplishment), although it’s a substantial one. This Schumann release is the duo’s first collaboration in six years, their previous five Move products dating from between 2010 and 2015.

The 15 songs average about 2’42” in length; not much time for padding. But you could say much the same about Robert Schumann’s two works, which are generally concise and lacking in sprawl. Confounding expectations even further (or adding to the mystery), the text of each song is printed in English; presumably, so you yourself can sing along with the cello. Or, more realistically, this verse publication intends to give you an idea of what the Knighton/Farid duo are attempting to communicate. Actually, not just an idea but the full picture.

This disc opens with Clara Schumann’s Op. 13 settings of two Heine poems, one by Ruckert, and three by Emanuel Geibel. These are polished and lyrically crafted songs, Knighton performing the first three an octave below the vocal line, the final three at the original level. Of course, you can find traces of her husband’s characteristics and some specific phrases sound finely woven enough to have come from his catalogue, like the slightly asymmetric prelude and postlude to Ich stand in dunklen Traumen; possibly the performers make too much of the sustained D on gestehen and Traum in Sie liebten sich beide but the work needs some individuality; Liebeszauber was accomplished with excellent control of touch by Farid whose triplets were light and non-glutinous, while both artists shone in the ritardando across the poem’s last two regretful lines.

Knighton gave a remarkable reading of the vocal line to Der Mond kommt still gegangen, the 5th that features at the start of each stanza’s second line moving into territory as touching as any singer could make it. A similar sensitivity pervaded the duo’s reading of Ich hab’ in Deinem Auge, a finely constructed lyric with a silk-smooth ease of utterance. As for Die stille Lotusblume, both musicians found here an ideal capstone for the cycle with a sensitive realization of the piano part’s rhythmic regularity, a plangent cello line that followed the composer’s evolving melodic patterns with telling sympathy, the series ending with a fine reflection of the poet’s concluding question through an inconclusive dominant 7th.

Kingston shines even more in the Ruckert poems, the first played an octave lower than written while the others make a positive impression because the cellist gives them a carefully etched outline; not exactly overdoing the vibrato but staying the right side of intrusive. Both artists made excellent work of Er ist gekommen with its contrast of nervous Werther-like angst succeeded by a mellifluous Ruhig stanza, polished off with a meltingly fluid downward moving cello line in the composer’s repeat of the last stanza.

Liebst du um Schonheit also was handled with consideration, even if its material impresses as bland – probably because of the sameness at the start of each section, the mould only fractured in the second half of the last quatrain; Farid’s brief postlude an excellent instance of his talent in finding a level of warm pathos – nothing too much. As for the concluding Warum willst du, here you come across a small gem of expression where each phrase slots into the next with admirable craft and, as in its companions, the climax arrives with little bravura but a world of emotional conviction. It helps immeasurably that Knighton and Farid deliver each sentence in well-practised partnership, each slight pause pitched in unshakeable congruence.

Clara’s Six Songs taken from Hermann Rollet’s novel Jucunde are a mixed blessing in terms of attractiveness and emotional variety. Here, if anywhere, you miss a singer’s input because of a kind of textual similarity, both literary and musical. The opening piece, Was weinst du, Blumlein, prefigures the unalloyed optimism of the cycle’s last two numbers – Das ist ein Tag and O lust, o Lust. Mind you, this first number also aims for a folksy cuteness and it unfortunately succeeds, to the point where the third stanza, fairly predictable, verges on the tedious. Nothing against the following An einem lichten Morgen, but attention fell more on the piano accompaniment and its speckled arpeggios than on the cello line which remained measured and spacious – one might almost say orotund – in comparison.

It takes you a while to get into the vein of Geheimes Flustern which has a 3/8 time signature but sets up two rhythmic patterns that wrong-foot each other. Not that challenging, as things turn out, but a deft exercise with a fine melody which didn’t captivate the performers that much as they played only two of its three verses. A complement to the first song in the cycle, Auf einem grunen Hugel has the same simplicity of style, if in a minor key and langsam. The realization is just as much a contrast, too, as the performers take care with their continuity to weave the setting’s irregular statements into a convincing whole.

The last pair are brief essays in jubilation: the first celebrates spring with some familiar onomatopoeia in bird tweets and hunting horns, while O Lust, o Lust has the same 6/8 metre but speaks in wider arches than its companion (the shortest in the set) where the piano support is a jig. Farid’s contributions have a convincing energy to them; Knighton clearly delights in the euphony of her melodies, the instrumental web fluent and definite.

Then we arrive at Robert Schumann’s two works and more familiar territory. I came to know, if not to love, the Op. 73 Fantasy Pieces through student performances under its three formats – clarinet, violin and cello. – and prefer the clarinet version for its definition and parity of dynamic. Knighton and Farid give a worthy account on this disc but its contours are cloudy. This is not an avoidable problem but any partial solution lies in the cello’s ability to push itself forward; a big bull instrument would have more luck but in this instance the instrumental mix proved over-polite. Farid, as usual, was all consideration for his partner and this approach worked pretty well in the first two Eusebius pieces, although even here you were denied much insight into the undercurrents of restlessness that characterize Schumann’s emotional landscape.

The concluding Rasch und mit Feuer kept up the underpinning rhythmic ferment but the piano’s output came over as half-cocked, nowhere strong enough in loud concerted passages; not even at the one fortissimo marking in my edition four bars from the end. The sforzandi lacked much punch and that vehemence that should erupt when cello and piano unite for the main theme’s upward rush impressed as muddy. To my ears, the most lucid of the three pieces was the central Lebhaft, mainly because the actual writing is more transparent and – to use a technical term – bouncy.

On first hearing, you’d think that the Five Pieces in Folk Style puts the cello consistently in front position and, for some of the time, that’s true. Listen again and you become aware of the interesting nature of the keyboard accompaniment. Sometimes it stays just that, with chord support and melody doubling. Then, a burst of individualism emerges, and another; eventually you realize that the distribution of labour is not all one-sided. There is another intriguing factor in Schumann’s odd phrase-lengths. I’m assuming that the melodies are the composer’s own, not gleaned from mittel-European sources; as well, the tunes often range too far to have that necessary gnomic quality.

Speaking of gnomic, the first of these pieces is titled Vanitas vanitatum, which some commentators have taken to refer to a Goethe poem about a drunken soldier. Certainly, that seems to have informed this duo who rolick through it Mit Humor, as required, and a plethora of lurches. This is where you get the impression that Farid will be underused, but then the piano takes on prominence when the key changes to F Major and he is not backward in coming forward, even if Kingston is working on her lower strings. But then, in the following Langsam, the piano gets to shine for about 15 bars only with a statement of the mellifluous and wide-reaching tune before sinking back to secondary position.

Honours are more even in Nicht schnell, mit viel Ton zu spielen for which the piano has a tattoo-like pattern under the cello’s asymmetrical tune; then full chords under the cello’s double-stop 11 bars when the key changes to A Major (not kind for the instrument and an obvious strain for Knighton) during which the keyboard is set into arpeggio mode that recurs at a finger-stretching coda. Further on, in the penultimate Nicht zu rasch piece, Farid gave the full-bodied chords unexpected power, notably in the last two bars. Not that this is subtle music with its oddly four-square structure and non-subtle movement forward; added to this, Farid’s harmonic changes in the central section take attention away from the treble-clef cello line/theme.

The last piece, Stark und markirt, reminds you of the Cello Concerto’s outer movements with its surging power. Once more, Farid is far from a support only. Luckily, this piece was articulated with welcome briskness of attack and a determination to call a forte a forte. Further, you were left in no doubt that this piece was a thorough partnership, one furnished with dramatic character and emotional urgency: an attention-grabbing track that worked quite effectively to finish a CD that has its fair share of restrained, pensive rambles.

Gifted group returns

Ensemble Liaison

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Wednesday February 23, 2022

Opening its season for 2022, this venerable group (at least 18 years on the go) displayed once more its penchant for mixing its programs: the rough with the smooth, old-fashioned with up-to-this-minute, time-honoured with temporary, full lungs versus short pants. Because of an injury to cellist Svetlana Bogosavljevich‘s left (I assume) hand, the scheduled Zemlinsky Op. 3 Trio of 1896 disappeared from the published agenda, replaced by the Brahms Clarinet Sonata in E flat, the second of his late two and part of the composer’s twilight-years affair with this instrument that produced four masterworks with the clarinet as fulcrum.

As things turned out in the Athenaeum 2 space, all three players appeared in the opening and closing numbers. Timothy Young‘s piano served as benign bindweed for three of Bruch’s Eight Pieces Op. 83; then later shared an equal load with Bogosavljevich and David Griffiths‘ clarinet for Armenian-Canadian pianist Serouj Kradjian‘s salute to the Carpathians, Dracula’s Ballad, newly arranged for the Liaison’s instrumental format. Another piece of make-weight appeared with Tema III from Giovanni Sollima‘s music for the 2005 remake of Il bell’Antonio, popularized by the cellist composer and Yo-Yo Ma.

Not that film music has to be fragile in construction, limited in melodic scope or rhythmically predictable – but it usually is. Bunuel had the right idea in using it as little as possible, if at all. But the extract from Sollima’s film score was pretty typical of the genre with a slowly developing theme on the cello while the piano backgrounded itself through an ostinato middle C. As atmospherics go, this sounded like a close cousin to John Williams’ main theme for Schindler’s List, mainly for its inner self-reduction to short motives woven into a thin-ply C minor fabric. Little disturbed the predictable flow apart from some unexpected harmonic clashes in the piano part and a few cello glissandi colouring a high-pitched climax. At about this point, you were aware of Bogosavljevich’s handicap with her vaults to high notes coming off accurately three times out of five.

The cello’s passage in octaves also sounded slightly off-colour, more so than when this musician is in her usual form; the moment was an exposed one while Young’s piano went all Sinding on us. A powerful highpoint sounded the conclusion to this more active middle section before the score moved back to a recapitulation of its moody opening, this time with a G/C ostinato. It’s a well-contrived display piece for both instruments, even if I can’t work out how it fits into the film’s scene-setting scheme which appears to balance the main character’s sexual impotence with the political situation in Fascist Italy of the 1930s. But it added another facet to Sollima’s musical personality, which I’ve only previously experienced through his 2016 guest appearance with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

As for the Dracula-centric piece, this turned out to be a folkloric hodge-podge, opening to a martial rhythm with a perky tune from the clarinet punctuated by loads of dynamic belting from Young’s piano. An inexplicable mental deviation made me think of The Soldier’s Tale, although Kradjian showed no tendency to harmonic acerbics. A shift into tango mode and we were treated to some excellent concerted passages where each trio member folded into the ensemble mix enthusiastically before a bridge led into a presto that could have been in G minor and where a hell-for-leather set of pages showed the composer flirting with 1920s jazz, a klezmer touch or two, plus some pale-Bartok freneticism with a mass of octaves bringing down the curtain. Comparing this with a recorded reading, the Melbourne trio gave the score an unexpected bite and relentless vigour.

Did I last hear some of the Bruch pieces from this group? Probably, because not many groups have the characteristic ensemble needed to negotiate them. In the opening Andante, Bogosavljevich’s rich timbre emerged at the change to A Major at Letter E in the 1910 Simrock edition but her colleagues also made rubato-rich going across the piece’s length. the bars flowing past easily and the texture enriched by some slight string portamenti. The second piece, Allegro con moto, intrigued mainly for the changes that Bruch made to his original viola line, the score’s ongoing surges reaching a deftly placed slight pause at Letter F 13 bars from the touching, muted conclusion.

Last selection from this work, the No. 6 Nachtgesang, immediately impressed for the determination in Young’s bass notes even when the prevailing ambience asked for a restrained attack. Luckily, the nocturne is a gift for all interpreters, Griffiths and Bogosavljevich eloquent across imitative and parallel motion passages, an excellent instance of both at Latter G. Still, the cello’s pitching three bars from the end fell just short of true and Griffiths spiked his penultimate note.

This program’s most substantial component, the Brahms sonata, was an up-and-down experience, the opening subject delivered with little character, the first instance of striking work coming with Young’s tender, muffled chords beginning at bar 28. But the outbursts that pepper this Allegro were not always crisp, possibly because Young was making instant adjustments to cope with a few out-of-tune notes, particularly an unhappy A5 and sudden unhappy complexes like the simple parallel piano part at bar 66. Nevertheless, the duo showed ideal pairs of heels in the benign regression starting at bar 138, and later a splendidly graduated intermeshing when the triplets started for the Tranquillo and those magical last 12 bars.

Griffiths and Young gave an impressive account of the Sostenuto trio in the middle of the following Allegro appassionato, even if the piano’s bass came over with extra power and the return at bar 139 was dynamically over-blasted. indeed, both players appeared over-exercised in the movement’s final third, with lots of fortissimo when forte would have sufficed.

But the Andante con moto variations were hard to fault, the theme a ravishing construct, particularly for that touching plagal cadence in bar 14. Then, the delights kept coming; carefully paced and delivered syncopations in the piano at bars 22 and 23; the elegantly balanced handling of triplets in the second variation; an attractive juxtaposition of responsorial and concerted across the following grazioso; Young’s laid-back off-the-beat progress right through Variation 4; and an infectious drive that reinforced the rush home from bar 135 onward.

As I said, this somewhat-less-than-an-hour’s worth of musical action proved to be an alternation between the venerable and the contemporary; in line with the Liaison group’s practice of offering a wide range. For all that, the Brahms and Bruch scores were written only 16 years apart, Sollima’s and Kradjian’s pieces composed even closer in time. Relieving one of my long-time bugbears, we heard no oddly-voiced arrangements but only versions of works totally endorsed by their creators. To general reassurance, this temperamentally vital ensemble is off on its way for a full year’s operations; here’s hoping nothing gets in the way this time.

Noli me tango

PIAZZOLLA

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday February 14, 2022

Back in Brisbane after two years’ absence, the ACO opened its break-out live-again lease of life here with one of the organization’s more popular guests. Accordionist Crabb has enjoyed a 20-year-long association with the Sydney players, given vivid life by a 2003 Chandos CD which contains all four Piazzolla works in this concert’s concluding melange, as well as the evening’s unexpected encore: Oblivion.

While the Argentinian composer’s music framed the program, the interstices proved more intriguing for this listener. At the centre of each half came a sample of orthodoxy: first, Handel’s A Major Concerto grosso, penultimate in the Op. 6 set and a reworking of one of the composer’s own organ concertos in the same key; later, the Bachiana Brasileira No. 9 by Villa-Lobos, obviously in the string orchestra version. Frippering around these scores came one-time Piazzolla collaborator Antonio Agri‘s Desde adentro arranged by Crabb (as was the opening Libertango); Elena Kats Chernin‘s 20-year-old Torque, an automobile engine celebration, which Crabb premiered with the ACO who commissioned the score. Additions to the night’s second half were Gardel‘s Por una cabeza in an arrangement by John Williams for Itzhak Perlman, the whole transcribed by Crabb and bringing back memories of Pacino in the Scent of a Woman film from 1992; the fourth movement, Coqueteos, from Gabriela Lena Frank‘s Leyendas – An Andean Walkabout which raised no eyebrows or much interest, I’m afraid; and the Piazzolla concluding tetralogy in yet another Crabb transcription: Milonga del Angel, Vayamos al Diablo, Romance del Diablo, and La Muerte del Angel.

Crabb sat front and centre for the night, contributing to everything in the first half, including a tenor-bass support in the concerto grosso, but was silent for the Frank and Villa-Lobos. Pianist for the program, Stefan Cassomenos, relished his role in the tangos and the Kats-Chernin escapade, but seemed to be silent for the Gardel – or else he was being super-subtle and merging selflessly into the ensemble. Most of the ACO personnel remained familiar apart from violinist Lily Higson-Spence and violist Meagan Turner. Despite the program’s information, Maxime Bibeau was not at the double bass stool; his place was taken by David Campbell from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

I’ve been to few enough concerts in recent times and the trend has been to present a program as a unit, without interval. However, the ACO took us back to pre-COVID practice – which has its good points (mainly, physical relaxation) and drawbacks (principally, the facility to find room for programmatic flab). This occasion’s particular sequence of works depended for its appeal largely on the South American components which – the Handel apart – were all-pervasive, even in Kats-Chenin’s Torque.

The ensemble’s account of Libertango took its time getting to the main melody; indeed, artistic director/ concertmaster/soloist Richard Tognetti‘s articulation of this tune seemed overdue after a lengthy span of scene-setting flourishes. Crabb’s solo contributions had that welcome character of sounding improvised, framed for the performance itself. My only problem came with the tuning of both first and second violins playing unison phrases; a touch off-point in some stretches – which surprised as this was the tail-end of the ensemble’s eleven-night national tour. Tognetti also starred in Desde adentro with a substantial solo; but then, he has an ideal fluency with this genre where it’s rare to have a player sensitive to the inbuilt style of production who also has an unshakeable technique.

Not much to say about the Handel concerto. Tognetti enjoyed dominating exposure; that’s the nature of this particular Handelian beast. The whole work was treated with an abundance of dynamic flexibility, some contrasts verging on bizarre. Still, the uniformity of attack reminded us of how much we have missed the expertise of this body, its sheer precision when the musicians are operating at their best. As well, certain moments startled both for the composer’s sense of theatre and the performance immediacy, like the bass entry in bar 8 of the first Allegro, the reassuring repeated notes in the prime melody to the appealing Andante, a splendid dovetailing of soloists and ripieno in this same movement and Tognetti’s semiquaver flights after bar 127, followed by a whip-cracking finale with just the right amount of ornamentation to distract from the movement’s bouree-like heftiness.

While she began with some tango-suggestive rhythmic movement in the first third of Torque, Kats-Chernin’s piece appealed most in its central slow section, in particular a chain of 2nds between Crabb and Cassomenos that spiced up a long melodic chain. But when the composer entered into a musical description or simulation of hurtling down the highway in the score’s last segment, it struck me that the journey could have been cut by half, if not more: the motoric only takes you so far – in music, not on the road where your wallet sets the limit.

Beginning the program’s second part, Tognetti set the mind-set for Gardel’s clever curvetting and ardent swoops. This is music that invites you to dance, thanks to its infectiousness, rather than asking you to leave the floor to professionals: my response to Piazzolla’s nuevo tango which is – thanks to its adoption by too many should-know-better musicians – in great danger of becoming viejo because of over-exposure and the mistaken belief that any combination will do . . . rather like the federal government’s mix-and-match approach to vaccines.

Frank attempts to meld classical traditional format with Andean folk music, although I feel that the former wins out over the latter in this movement from her Leyendas. The composer’s language is accessible enough and her scoring for strings shows a keen awareness of textural potential, but it was difficult to find the folkloric element. Probably my fault as, like so many Australians of my generation, west coast South American music has remained unexplored territory. For all that, the ACO presented the score with apparent mastery of its none-too-troubling mysteries. After, the Villa-Lobos prelude-and-fugue construct came across with a firm unanimity from all concerned, although I believe a compromise was worked out with the composer’s double bass line which requires three performers at the Preludio‘s beginning; one of the cellos was deputed to engage in lowest-level support duties for both segments. While the 37-bar first movement has a restrained ardour in its wide-spaced layers, the fugue shows the Bach strain more obviously in play. Most attractive is the central action where the fugue subject almost disappears in a chromatic ferment, threatens to come back in full force with the violas at bar 109 but dissipates its semiquaver energy, only for a real recapitulation 20 bars later in a score that is not too clever-clever but errs on the side of Brazilian jubilation rather than exercising Bach’s deceptive formal control.

Probably nothing new came to ACO veterans with the last Piazzolla bracket; if you know the Song of the Angel CD, the only major change for this night was that Benjamin Martin wasn’t on piano. A deft alternation between fast and slow, the pieces formed an amiable suite, albeit one where the harmonic shifts made for comfortable listening. Cassomenos achieved some penetration but the main memory I have is of Crabb dominating the mix, demonstrating his instrument’s capacity for explosive bursts of vehemence and piercing single-note melodic contours. Further, Vayamos al Diablo presents listeners with an unexpected rhythmic shape: 4/8 + 3/8 – enough to test even the most musically woke tango dancers.

But I’m operating at a disadvantage because of a lack of sympathy with Piazzolla and the tango. Perhaps the problem lies in a lack of varied exposure to the composer’s music; from a catalogue of about 3,000 pieces, I’d know a maximum of 10 (well,13 if you individualize the Estaciones Portenas) and repeated hearings of those few is the only way I can distinguish nearly all of them. As for the dance as choreography, it’s difficult to find an attraction because of its self-consciousness. Even the dedicated advocacy of Clive James wasn’t persuasive, though the spectacle of that great writer performing with characteristic understatement showed how the steps need not become ridiculously stilted.

That’s the way the cards fall; not every program is going to bring complete satisfaction and, if you are fated to encounter a musical genre that leaves you cold, it’s best to face the experience in the company of a distinguished, always distinctive body such as the ACO. Yet again, we have to be grateful that these musicians are at liberty to visit, raising both standards and spirits in a time that is still beset with uncertainty.


Best wine first?

SUMMER NIGHTS SERIES 1 OPENING GALA

Bendigo Chamber Music Festival

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Capital Theatre

Wednesday February 2, 2022

Breaking in from the south, the Australian Digital Concert Hall put an end to Queensland’s long serious music drought by presenting all the recitals programmed for this Bendigo celebration which is, for the first time (as I understand it) devoted to chamber music. Co-directors Christopher Howlett and Howard Penney began the gala concert with addresses that demonstrated how pleased they were to be back participating in live performance in front of an actual audience, while Mayor Andrea Metcalf opened the festival with something approaching proprietorial pleasure.

As Penny pointed out, no undertaking like this occurs without some problems. In this case, violinist Sulki Yu from Orchestra Victoria had incurred the joys of being a close contact and had to withdraw, replaced by Andrew Haveron moonlighting from his Sydney Symphony Orchestra concertmaster duties. As well, Emma Sullivan stepped in to the double bass chair (or stool) – an absence that had me worried in the festival’s program notes when the instrument was completely absent although specifically required for one of the scores being attempted.

In fact, we heard three works: Vivaldi’s In furore motet from the early 1720s, Saint-Saens’ double bass-requiring Septet of 1979-80, and Dvorak’s 1889 Piano Quartet No. 2. None of these is a regular in the concert hall and I would think that many of us were hearing the motet and septet live for the first time, although the former has been thrust into the early music spotlight by Julia Lezhneva whose recorded reading is little short of spectacular, particularly as she is assisted along the way by Il Giardino Armonico who make Vivaldi’s instrumental support a vital and chameleonic creation.

Soprano Chloe Lankshear displayed a fine clarity and near-precision in the opening movement and the concluding Alleluia, employing some of Lezhneva’s interpolations in the repeat of the opening aria, with only a few omitted notes in bar 64 disrupting an excellent seam of virtuosic production notable for some expertly despatched high notes. The string body was a formidable one with violins Natsuko Yoshimoto, Sophie Rowell, Rachael Beesley and Haveron; violas Tobias Breider and Stephen King; cellos Penney and Howell; bass Sullivan, with Donald Nicholson providing a crisp harpsichord tang. Thanks to Lankshear, the opening pages radiated verve although the singer’s phrase-shaping still has some way to go.

I would have preferred the central Largo beginning Tunc meus fletus to have been handled with less room for pauses; they were of little use to the singer and the result was a romanticisation of the texture, even if the performers believed they were giving these fairly simple pages some flexibility. For all that, the ensemble functioned very well here while all forces handled that unexpected flattened 3rd at bar 31 with equanimity. Lankshear eschewed noteworthy ornamentation in the repeats of this section, reserving her powers for the final jubilant pages which needed just a bit more punch on downbeats to move this reading from pleasing to remarkable.

In his Septet, Saint-Saens employs an eclectic mix: string quintet (including double bass), trumpet and piano. And the greatest of these is the piano which relishes the composer’s flashy brand of virtuosity and dominates the mix all too often – or perhaps that was just Daniel de Borah exercising his dynamic potential which is bound to determine your opening impressions in the initial Preambule right up to the Piu allegro change, just before Saint-Saens goes all Schumann Piano Quintet with thematic and motivic sharing. In the initial flurries, de Borah only blotted his page once, as far as I could hear: half-way through bar 17. In the semi-exposed trumpet part, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s David Elton showed precise and measured delivery in a part that wouldn’t tax many players, except for a final low E flat which I couldn’t detect.

Following his antique path, Saint-Saens moved to a Menuet where a rare Elton mis-step came up during the repeat of the first 10-bar sentence. Later, the strings-minus-bass unison pages (involving Yoshimoto, , Haveron, King and Howlett) with trumpet above a rippling piano proved a purple patch in a reading that depended above all else on the musicianship of its disparate participants, coming as they did from across the lower eastern seaboard. Despite the rather brash high-stepping nature of the Menuet itself, de Borah introduced a pleasantly subtle disruption in his short solo twelve bars from the ending to this segment of the movement. Later, some interest during the Intermede came in solos from King and Howlett which promised much but petered out all too soon, the aggression that bursts out at Letter C (in the Durand. Schoenewerk & Cie 1991 reprint) a welcome relief from a glut of sweetly intersecting lines. Still, the finest achievement of this section – possibly the whole reading – came in a sensitively couched 11-bar coda with some eloquent gradations of softness in all layers.

Being open-minded and chauvinistic in equal measure, I found the shade of Percy Grainger lingering over the opening to the Septet’s Gavotte et Final; don’t know how this came to mind except in the generous. bumptious leaps at the beginning. Again, this movement is a fairly easy ride for everyone except the pianist whose break into triplets towards the first double-bar is a delicacy as toothsome as anything else in Saint-Saens’ chamber music. The keyboard work apart, the remainder of these pages is pretty plain sailing with lashings of mutual support in the Piu allegro/ Stringendo/Animato acceleration until the restrained welter of the final bars. At which point, the only clear defect in the performance came as Elton essayed the third-last bar’s top E flat where a more cautious performer would have taken the composer’s ossia and left that ascending arpeggio well alone. The note cracked, of course, and left this listener a tad dispirited.

Nevertheless, the performance succeeded because the timbral mixtures came over with vigour and freshness in an acoustic that seemed boxy. I’ve not been inside this theatre – ever – but I suspect there’s a lot of absorbent material apart from the stage curtains in the building. Lankshear coped admirably with a lack of resonance/echo in her Vivaldi and the two exposed soloists in this second work showed an essential agility.

Eschewing an interval, the program then launched into the Dvorak with Amir Farid making a banquet for himself of the rich piano part; his colleagues were Rowell, Breider and Penney. From its opening Allegro con fuoco declamation, this ensemble left little doubt that it was determined to be involved in the proposed struggle, their dynamic levels hefty and the strings’ bowing often stretched to a strained mark. In writing of this thickness, you could forgive a few errors from Farid, since the composer gives his pianist an often virtuosic role where keyboard hammering sits across and alongside strident string lines.

The Lento opens with a three-segment cello solo, an opportunity here for Penny to go all wooly on us with a searching throb to his vibrato in alternation with Farid’s echo. And each participant had the opportunity to emote, thanks to changes of emphasis and texture, as well as sudden turns to rhetoric before reversions to eloquent poetry, as at the change to D flat Major at Letter D in the post-1945 Simrock edition which received a carefully detailed interpretation that once again made you realize what close conditions the players were enduring, especially when Penny returned to draw us back on track at Letter E. This melting moment was well-matched by Farid’s assumption of primacy at Letter F as he canoodled through the prime melody with a hushed support of string chords. Indeed, the whole movement came over with alternating sentiment and passion – but that’s what the score proposes.

Given the first movement’s aggressive emphasis, the group’s approach to Dvorak’s third movement impressed as muted or muffled, the landler-style dance an example of the composer’s prolixity, so that the Trio change to B Major came upon us as very welcome. Penney’s three exposed quaver bars at Tempo I came across as rough in context; the violin/viola duet work 15 bars before Letter C didn’t live up to the standards of congeniality and accord that obtained through the other three movements; the final cadence would have gained from a more decisive communal attack.

Farid again took the dynamic high road in the Allegro ma non troppo finale, even in the support role required prior to Letter E. I think this assumption of authority might have had something to do with a faltering across the chromatic shifts in bar 5 before Letter C. The only major flaw in this movement came from the restrained nature of Rowell’s violin which impressed as elegant and reliable but too refined to offer much competition to her string colleagues, let alone the emphatic keyboard.

In the end, this quartet struck me as the most put-together, confected segment of the gala program; four excellent musicians, without doubt, but not given the time needed to put together a consistently integrated interpretation. And in this Dvorak, more than in the motet or septet, such a uniformity of approach is fundamental.

Original works that breathe

BASS INSTINCTS

Alicia Crossley

Move Records MCD 624

Straight on the heels of percussionist Claire Edwardes‘ new CD of works by female Australian composers comes this publication by Alicia Crossley of bass recorder compositions, again all by Australian women composers. There’s only one common element: Alice Chance whose Mirroring appears on the Edwardes disc, and a mutation called Inhaltations stands at the centre of Crossley’s production. The other names that Crossley promotes are Holly Harrison, Fiona Hill, Anne Boyd, Lisa Cheney, Amanda Cole and Jessica Wells. As far as I can tell, all of these are Sydney composers except Lisa Cheney, who is Melbourne-based. But it’s no good being absolute about this; you can check up on contradictory websites and information sources and still not wind up with the right facts; least of all in a these chop-me-change-you years where personal movement is hard to detect.

This CD moves into more advanced compositional territory than Edwardes’ recent product. Three of the works involve electronics, one allies itself to percussion, wind chimes appear in another and a multi-tracked bass recorder quartet stars in Chance’s work. Spending far too long chasing down information, I’ve come to the conclusion that all these pieces were probably commissioned by Crossley, although I can only swear to four of them being so blessed. As for their dating, three of them are definitely 2021 while the others are probably from that year. Thanks to Move Records’ promotion of local writers, I’ve come across isolated works by most of these composers – many more in the case of veteran Boyd – and traces remain of other pieces that came to the fore in concerts by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra when in Cybec-modern mode, also at the occasional Musica Viva recital, and even one score heard during the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition

It’s a hard ask for these writers. Even allowing for Crossley’s skill, her instrument is a limited one with a range of two octaves; hence, I suppose, the fact that only one work is for the bass recorder alone and unadorned. Everybody except Lisa Cheney has looked at opportunities for expansion. But this one unadorned work, Before You, is one of the more affecting offerings on this disc. As I understand, it’s a love-song to the composer’s newly-born baby daughter, Nora. The piece is not all slow-moving lullaby material but has some deftly-placed emphatic plosions and root-forming repeated notes, even some double stops (note plus humming?), and a touchingly curved lyrical section before the final monotone tattoo. It’s a strange and imprecise ambience we’re offered, where uncertainty and affirmation sit alongside each other: a fine summation of parenthood, in other words.

Slightly more varied in its instrumental source material, Anne Boyd’s Alhekulyele brings wind chimes into the mix. This piece revolves around illustrator and Aboriginal rights activist Olive Pink and the Botanical Garden that she established in Alice Springs, from which in her latter years she would watch the sun set on Mt. Gillen, the imposed name of Alhrkulyele. Boyd presents the work as both a meditation and a dance; as far as I can see, the dance reference doesn’t start until about the two-thirds point, the preceding material presenting an aural scene all too easily transferred into one’s preconceptions of the continent’s centre. The percussion element is introduced at various points, serving as aural brackets, while the recorder is gifted with a long, going-nowhere melodic line, interrupted by over-blowing passages that imitate the same effect on a didjeridu.

Again, Boyd uses a double-stop-producing technique which could involve breathing and/or fingering in a specific manner, such as we have come to know and love from contemporary flautists, the rot setting in (for me, at least) with the recordings of the incomparable Severino Gazzelloni. The dance segment is a piece of pattern-play that would probably not appeal to many choreographers because it stops and starts at its own sweet will, although the full and partial repetitions are suggestive of similar essays from Antill to Sculthorpe.

Beginning the CD is Holly Harrison’s Sylvan, a three-movement suite with erotic overtones. In the first, Crossley works in partnership with percussionist Joshua Hill on hand drums to show the woodwind instrument as a cool-eyed vamp, starting her act slowly and gradually rising to a jazz- and Latin-inflected climax. This is a deft piece of construction for its crescendo shape and for the juxtaposition of the recorder’s breathy sound quality against Hill’s snappy percussion. In the second movement, Harrison moves to a recorder-marimba partnership which pursues another cool jazz path; nothing over-aggressive but plenty of mild effects like small glissandi, breaths, flutter-tonguing, the whole capped by a moody, vibrato-rich coda. Hill’s marimba also works hard in the final piece which follows another catchy Latin rhythm but with more instrumental interweaving and a mid-way switch to a soft tinkling underpinning which suggests a cymbal used carefully, content to stay in the background of Crossley’s syncopated flights.

This is a fine opening as Harrison takes Crossley’s disc title and pursues one of its suggestions, if you allow ‘bass’ to become ‘base’. Still, Harrison’s communications of an earthy compositional stratum remain above the aesthetic navel and the suite suggests diversion rather than full-blown engagement.

Alice Chance’s Inhaltations – a cross between ‘inhale’ and ‘exaltation’ – is proposed as yet another dance, this one for the bass recorder and a multi-tracked bass recorder quartet; the whole sound complex supplied, I assume, by Crossley because no other artists are listed as contributors. It begins as a kind of slow chorale with the solo (live?) recorder line weaving a melodic line above the chords – more an incantation than an inhalation. A few dissonant harmonies appear at about the 3’40” mark but the greater part of the piece is unexceptional and follows an orthodox pattern, the solo line eventually moving into the centre of the chordal fabric. If there is a dance here, it has the character of a slow-moving pavane, and the exaltation is essentially spiritual, not physical.

The remaining three works involve bass recorder and electronics. Fiona Hill’s Lost in the Darkness takes as its starting point a poem by a refugee who had spent two years in detention with her younger sister. The atmosphere is, as you’d expect, dark and mournful with many sustained notes, tightly whispered words, a light use of electronics which seem to be based mainly on bass recorder sounds. At the centre, the solo wind line tends to be more volatile and unpredictable – rather like the federal government’s treatment of those dispossessed unfortunate enough to wind up on Australian shores.

Hill suggests very strongly the scenario of a captive bird struggling against restraints, as well as the futility and endlessness of the detention process, particularly in the final moments of her piece where the real-time output is mirrored by an electronic sustain. This makes for a fine piece of polemic, to my ears: presenting us with an aural equivalent to the isolation and quiet, depressing environment of people like those refugees who remain in Carlton’s Park Hotel while a spoilt Serbian tennis star has been able to tip his toe into their world and then fly home to his waiting minions and millions. It’s not an absolutely depressing piece; the solo line has many flights of restlessness and agitation. But the imprisoned spirit that it represents finds no way out – just a sustained, floating changelessness.

Microtones make a basic element in Amanda Cole’s Vibration Meditation which is focused on changes in timbre and production techniques more than rhythm and harmony which remain unadventurous across the work’s breadth. While the sustained electronic notes and chords give a certain weight to the score’s progress, the live recorder line holds the really interesting elements as Crossley employs pretty much all the same techniques as her colleagues, and then some. Her variation comes in that exposed line’s fluency, it seems to me, and not in the material itself which is content with a comfortable diatonic repetition – slowly altered, yet the same elements are sustained.

The CD’s last track has a schizoid form: The Clockmaker on the sleeve, The Clock in the booklet. It opens with electronic tick-tocks and a soft but perky recorder line, punctuated by percussive interpolations as the rhythm moves in a five/six alternating pattern. In fact, the electronic percussion takes on major importance with a sonorous passage for bell sounds and notes reminiscent of a steel band. Then the rhythmic insistence stops for a kind of free-wheeling lyric line supported by sonorous sound bands, before the ticking recurs and a faster tempo obtains as the composer revisits her initial material, although the electronic support is here more richly coloured. While the live recorder performs a sort of dribbling-away sign-off, the background persists in its energy until it fades into the distance.

This final piece has claims to being the disc’s most solid example of physical replication. Like many of its companions, The Clockmaker uses the bass recorder’s compass with a specific determination to display its timbral qualities, although this composer avoids most of the sound-production techniques brought into play by others with a more adventurous bent. All nine tracks show a musical world that is essentially soft-voiced and inferential – a circumscribed ambience with smooth edges. It soothes but is intriguing enough to engross rather than working as an aural narcotic.

Sweet and low

RHYTHMS OF CHANGE

Claire Edwardes

Move Records MD 3459

Of course, percussionist Edwardes is speaking of changing rhythms – the shifts in beat and pulse that Stravinsky and Bartok gifted us in the first half of the 20tm century, to the point where a predictable metre that lasts unchanged throughout a contemporary piece of music can be regarded as a failure of invention and/or imagination. Some regard it as a reassurance, to have the time signature stand as a monolith; if it was good enough for Paisiello, surely it’s good enough for us? More importantly, Edwardes is talking about something like a change in performance aesthetic. Each of the nine works performed on this CD has been commissioned by Edwardes from seven female composers, a result of the performer realizing how male-centric is (was?) the nature of her repertoire. These writers are Maria Grenfell, Ella Macens (two works) Alice Chance, Peggy Polias, Bree van Reyk, Elena Kats-Chernin (two works), and Anne Cawrse.

This is an interesting list; certainly for me because, Kats-Chernin apart, I don’t know any of them. Grenfell is currently a Hobart academic; Macens appears to be centred in Sydney where the bulk of her work is commissioned and performed; ditto Chance; the same with Polias; van Reyk breaks this mould by living in Newcastle (as far as I can tell); Kats-Chernin is the most well-known and prolific of all Australian women composers and resides in Sydney; finally, Cawrse takes us away from COVID Central (or has that distinction moved north?) by living and working in Adelaide. The age range that these composers represent is also wide – from 64 to 27. But what about a similar scope in the actual sounds we hear? Well, it’s not startlingly wide.

Grenfell has produced a three-movement suite for marimba solo. Macens’ first work involves vibraphone and crotales, while her second is for marimba alone. Chance’s Mirroring is a vibraphone solo, while Polias gets with the strength through one more marimba work. Van Reyk joins the Chance push with a vibraphone solo; Elena Kats-Chernin hits the marimba solo trail, then gives us a vibraphone piece; finally, Cawrse’s three Dance Vignettes round off the experience with a marimba. Focus on these two instruments was inevitable, given that Edwardes’ prescription to her composers was that their music had to be for solo mallet percussion and there’s not much left – xylophone and glockenspiel, possibly, but neither is used in your modern-day contemporary music-making, whereas the vibraphone has been employed by some impressive big names of the 20th century and the marimba forms an essential part of many music-making percussion nights in this century and the last – as I’ve found out to my cost.

Edwardes delivers Maria Grenfell’s Stings and Wings with assurance and a keen eye for its humour. The three movements – Jack Jumper, Dragonfly, Moth Hunt – depict insects with an attractive deftness, each presenting us with a motif or two and demonstrating the composer’s good husbandry with her material, be it a rising Major 2nd chord punctuating a syncopated murmuring, rapidly repeated notes and chords, a happily urgent single-note pattern that transforms into a melody but continuously returns to its original shape. The central piece interests for its middle section where Grenfell deviates from the expected path and works into more taxing, irregular rhythms and harmonic constructs, before calming us down with a return to her opening bar atmospherics.

As a job-lot, this suite is the CD’s second-longest construct but each segment passes with alacrity, the composer owning the inestimable gift of knowing how much is enough. While there’s little here to frighten conservative tastes, the work is an amiable delight – not too difficult in a technical sense but asking for a buoyancy of interpretation, here well realized by Edwardes.

Ella Macens’ Falling Embers refers to the aftermath of two bushfires – one that she personally experienced as a child, the second that terrific disaster of 2019-20. It’s a gently articulated piece, given a base by bowed sustained notes while an incrementally expanding melody in C minor emerges, vibraphone and three supplementary crotales making ideal complements in another work that refrains from mallet-crunching but sustains a placid, elegiac atmosphere that suggests calm and rest without a hint of any preceding terrors. Macens’ Verve dates from 2016; a marimba solo, it is skeletal in its matter but sets a few timing problems – nothing too serious for a modern percussion player, especially one with experience in Latin American dance steps. I don’t know where the title comes from; the piece is a neat exercise, if a repetitious one beneath the dressing, and happy to stay rooted pretty much throughout in A minor.

Mirroring by Alice Chance, a vibraphone solo, lives up to its name. Not that it’s packed with canons and cancrizans, but the piece presents its building blocks and plays with them in a glimmering sheet of variants, some of which you catch straight away while others nibble at the corners of memory. Chance’s world here is direct in its address but not strident, best appreciated in its rhythmical flow which seems to be continually on the move and not settling into a specific pattern, even if you sense that the pulse is unwavering in a subterranean manner. In different mode completely although having the pandemic and its effects firmly in its sights, Peggy Polias presents a vision of the COVID-19 virus as it attacks and recedes, eventually outfoxed by researchers and out-and-out virologists. Receptor is easily the most ‘modern’ music heard so far with a healthy atonality in operation, ameliorated by plenty of repetitions and textural varieties as it works through its four sections: Binding, Sequencing, Defending, Fading. This work’s last bars serve as a muted consolation, a soft requiem for the tragedy that many of us have faced.

Exploiting the vibraphone’s ability to generate differing sounds, Bree van Reyk exploits a range of techniques in Slipstreams, which revolves around pedal notes that last a bar while the fun goes on at different levels above them, particularly lengthy measured melodic chains and incidental, faster-paced small cymbal patterns. A harmonically plain work, van Reyk has also opted for an inexorability of rhythmic underpinning; still, the work is a sort of address to her younger self, focusing on sounds as qualitative units more than demonstrations of expertise or instrumental facility.

The oldest work in this collection is Elena Kats-Chernin’s 2010 Violet’s Etude, which celebrates the then-energetic nature of Edwardes’ daughter, a domestic presence as composer and performer prepared the former’s Golden Kitsch percussion concerto. A marimba solo, the work stays wedded to its 5/4 time-signature throughout, as well as an E minor tonality with modal inflections. As with every one of Kats-Chernin’s works that I know, this one is melodically idiosyncratic and deftly polished, reflected in Edwardes’ clear delivery, right down to the almost inaudible final gestures. Poppy’s Polka concerns Edwardes’ younger daughter and outlines the young girl’s day at school; another clever, almost facile vibraphone bagatelle, this time in A Major/minor in ternary shape, its meandering melody taking more than a little from Bach’s A minor Invention but the delivery packed with different shadings and styles of attack.

Last of all, Anne Cawrse’s three Dance Vignettes comprise the CD’s longest work: Meditations and Hymns, Fancy and Flight, Scamper and Scoot – all on a decreasing scale of length but just as atmospheric and as title-reflective as anything else in this collection. The first is loaded with intimations and imitations of plainchant, organum, tunes that might belong in a latter-day psalter; the whole sounds restrained and potentially meditation-accompanying with a great deal of repeated-note work and a restrained dynamic level. In the central piece, the fancy is light-stepping, initially in E Major and moving along its arpeggiated path with calm deliberation before entering into more complex rhythmic and harmonic territory between the half and three-quarter marks, then returning to the original 4/4 stepwise motion – the flight being harnessed at its end, or so it seems.

A fast linear duet finishes of the suite, the main interest coming from the combination of off- and on-beat accents, as well as the precision of output in a marimba piece that comprises two lines for much of its length, the 4/4 regularity interrupted by interpolated bars of disjuncture-causing irregularity, not to mention some brief glissandi near the conclusion. Scamper and Scoot serves as a happy romp with which to finish this display of Edwardes’ talents, even if – like many of its companions – it flirts with chromatic shifts but is firmly tonal. I don’t think many barriers are smashed through on this disc; even the more daring moments avoid angularity and dynamic shocks. But the final effect is one of careful craft being exercised, an overall evenness of temperament and address, the whole performed with sympathy and unfaltering devotion that speak out, no matter what level of virtuosity is required.

New clothes for Christmas

HARK!

The Song Company

Melbourne/Australian Digital Concert Hall

Tuesday December 21, 2021

St. Philip’s Church, Sydney

Pretty much everything that has happened to The Song Company over recent years has escaped my notice. The group made several visits to Melbourne during my last years there, performing at the Recital Centre with impressive results; I believe Roland Peelman conducted at a few of these programs, although he resigned from his directorship in 2015, about four years prior to the organization being put into receivership and the unholy mess that followed. All the singers that I saw then have left the ensemble; the octet for Tuesday night’s live-stream program from Sydney’s St Philip’s Church in York Street featured completely new faces/voices, and any efforts to identify them all have met with little success.

This online experience was actually the middle one of five performances presented over three afternoons/nights from St. Philip’s and its companion Garrison Church over the hill in Miller’s Point. A thematically well-ordered program divided into four sections found the Company covering a wide range of repertoire, setting the celebratory ball rolling with O come, o come, Emmanuel pronounced by a male solo in Latin before the rest of the singers joined in to work through all eight verses – which rather threw me because I’d only ever come across seven – variety here catered for through groovy harmonic changes and soprano descants that increased in range and intensity. All of this was handled without the support of organist Kurt Ison; when he and his instrument entered for the last verse, the choral body had slipped slightly in pitch. It’s always a risk, that device, and probably best left on one side or not attempted so blatantly, no matter how secure the singers.

Conductor/associate artistic director Francis Greep was working from two compilations new to me: the Naxos Book of Carols and the Patmos Book of Carols. In fact, 10 of the 18 works heard on this program came from the Naxos collection, 2 from the Patmos, one appeared to be a fusion of both Patmos and Naxos – a sort of Dodecanese-Cycladic melange – and five were original compositions or arrangements by contemporary writers: one-time professional cartoonist Brian Kogler (two carols), indigenous musician Elizabeth Sheppard, Sydney lawyer Rachel Scanlon, and British singer Richard Eteson. This all made for an invigorating experience, as the Oxford Book of Carols and Jacques/Willcocks/Rutter Carols for Choirs compendia were swept aside in a welter of novelty.

Coming from the once-free north, I didn’t know that masks had been instituted (re-instituted?) in Sydney and this twilight audience was hard pressed to participate in the congregational numbers: Hark! the herald angels sing, Silent night, Away in a manger, and O come, all ye faithful – so much so, that the Company proved very powerful in dynamic, unlike the usual experience where people in pews discover lungs and diaphragms that have rested unused all year. Of course, this prominence might also have had something to do with the M/ADCH recording system. Whatever the cause, we heard all Company personnel clearly in whatever was being sung.

A regular at many Christmas services, The Angel Gabriel from the Basque territory here enjoyed new garb with a hummed first statement before the first verse began. Here came some harmonic shifts from the version that we all know, if not love. In less try-hard territory, the singers’ articulation and clarity of notes made a striking impression, particularly for a group that is new to their work. A group of three pieces combined came next – A Song of Joy, Christmas Day, and The Song of Angels – all ascribed to Orlando Gibbons. Well, I knew the last by name but its precedents left me out in the dark, even if the singers’ delivery again impressed for its clarity and balance.

Mendelssohn came upon us with the refreshment of different linear content, a very prominent organ, and a striking descant that would have proved improbably difficult for your common or garden-variety church choir. Moving into the second quarter, as we say in the AFL, The Holly and the Ivy had acquired a new tune from the BBC archives and this novelty was entwined with the regular Cecil Sharp-collected melody which was entrusted to a solo bass, a tenor-and-alto duo, then a soprano-and-bass combination (I think: this vagueness comes from hasty notes scribbled down while trying to find the new tune’s origin) with an impressive fusion in the final verse/chorus.

In another Continental excursion, the Company sang Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, according to Michael Praetorius. As far as I could hear, the first two verses were trios with all in for verse 3 – an arrangement I’ve not come across before – but the intra-linear spatial balance proved to be one of the program’s delights. Back home, we were just settling in to Kogler’s The King of Blis – which presumably used the same text as John Rutter had in 2010 – when it stopped! To be followed by the Silent night feast for the Company, with a solo male voice adding in some passing excrescences to the middle verse while his companions provided a hummed backdrop, the whole capped by a sad glissando on the first ‘born’.

Sheppard’s Mary, gentle Mother brought about a change in position for the singers but what actually came across was predictable and Anglican-sweet with an orthodox harmonization, although the composer displayed a deft realization of texture in her moves from homophony to part-writing. Baby Jesus, hush! now sleep was the Rocking Carol of Czech origin, notable for a brisk harmonic surprise in bar 2. Again, the ensemble’s carefully applied equanimity impressed, even when the linear texture increased in complexity. Britten made the Balulalow text inseparable from his A Ceremony of Carols setting, although a few composers have made their own versions, including Brisbane’s own Colin Brumby. Rachel Scanlan’s version suffered from an unclear women’s contribution at the beginning, but the work improves when it starts at Oh my dear heart and captures attention for its insightful response to the Wedderburn brothers’ words and for an unexpectedly brisk conclusion.

Part the Third’s finishing mark, Away in a manger, found the tenors riding the blast across Verse 1 in a Naxos arrangement that seemed to put off the congregation. In the choir-only Verse 2, something odd happened at the end of line 2, a move that I couldn’t put my finger on although it left the sense of an unflattering flattening. Whoever improved on William J. Kirkpatrick’s original was still aiming to keep the tenors on the qui vive in the final stanza.

Into the final phase and we encountered It came upon the midnight clear by Jonathan Pitts, a relative of Song Company artistic director Antony Pitts. An organ fanfare led into a monolinear opening strain, followed by a harmonized stanza, before reverting to the opening’s atmosphere of hushed excitement at going nowhere. And still they came: an alto solo leading to stately chorale sounds and a return to a sort of neo-syncopation at For lo! the days are hastening on, and an under-emphatic organ at the conclusion. Kogler emerged again with an aphoristic contribution in Gaudete. I heard the pendant Christus est natus/Ex Maria virgine,/gaudete! lines, even if the composer was livening things up by having his singers clap to punctuate their single line. It’s a lively piece, welcome in this context but – as with Kogler’s previous The King of Blis – it didn’t stick around long enough to make a lasting impression.

Eteson has used the tune Gallants Come Away as the basis for his version of A Jolly Wassel-Bowl, which has twelve stanzas because it was to be performed on Twelfth Night. The combinations offer variety – males, females, male duet, female duet, monolinear, rich harmonization, mixed duet, change of metre, full choir with descant. But it wears out its welcome – how could it be otherwise? – like Tchaikovsky’s employment of folk-song; a little dressing-up doesn’t take you very far. Nearing the end, the Company’s reading of In dulci jubilo boasted a line of sources: Praetorius, Bach and Stainer – the lot arranged by Antony Pitts. This might have worked to better effect with more variety of dynamic but little stuck out from the clever arrangements beyond an unexpected simplicity at Nova cantica and In regis curia. Good King Wenceslas from the Naxos collection again offered some sophisticated harmonic alterations but I found the organ contributions to be the main point of interest in this well-worn classic.

Full time. Here the lack of congregational input sounded most apparent. A vox populi presence was allowed in Verse 2 – the words were printed in the program – but, by this stage, it seemed as if the St. Philip’s turba was following the practice in many other churches where the experts are left alone at this point. Verse 3 employed a descant in canon, which seemed a trifle attention-grabbing; something similar happened with the grating chords at Word of the Father.

Nevertheless, this evergreen concluded a ceremony-of-sorts that removed decades of verdigris. Not all of it was congenial, especially to listeners heavy with preconceptions and expectations of a familiar experience; with respect and congratulations to the Patmos/Naxos innovations, I’m unsure what future these new interpretations will have outside professionally distinguished choirs like this ensemble. Still, I found cause for gratification in the continued existence of the Song Company and appreciate the efforts by Greep and Pitts to persevere in shaping a future for the ensemble: still one of the more impressive and meritorious blooms in Sydney’s serious music chaplet.

Gimme that old-time Espana

THE LATIN MUSE

Nancy Tsou

Move Records MCD 619

With her latest CD, Tsou is using the word ‘Latin’ in a trans-continental sense. At the start, she plays three familiar works by the Argentinian tango explorer, Astor Piazzolla; she concludes with another set of three pieces by the much more talented Argentinian writer, Alberto Ginastera. In the centre, we are treated to much well-circulated material in two works each by Granados, Falla and Albeniz – foundation-stones of 20th century Spanish music. The whole collection of a dozen tracks adds up to a little under 46 minutes but it has some interesting points – for me, these arise in the Ginastera Op. 2, the youngest music on the CD as it came from the composer’s 21st year.

Even at this early stage, you can relish the driving rhythmic energy, clear-voiced melodies and added-note harmonic clusters to be found in Ginastera’s masterworks like the contemporaneous Panambi ballet – a thunderbolt from my mid-adolescence when extracts appeared on Goossens’ 1958 recording alongside a truncated version of Antill’s Corroboree – and the more sophisticated 1953 Variaciones concertantes. These Danzas Argentinas begin with a Dance of the old herdsman – a particularly spry senior, it seems, with a taste for the bitonal as the right hand plays white notes exclusively while the left hand stays on the black with very few deviations. Tsou handles this with a clever mixture of restraint and jauntiness, my only problem her slight deceleration in tempo about 12 bars in after a very brisk opening. But the cross-rhythms are treated with excellent command.

The second dance, that of the Delightful Young Lady (more ‘elegant’, I would have thought), is a languid piece in 6/8 during which the melody gains an additional line that moves in 4ths and 5ths, acquires full chord status before sinking back to its quieter beginnings. The piece is more than a little suggestive of Piazzolla, albeit some decades earlier, and Tsou performs it with excellent malleability of its basic elements. Finally, Danza del gaucho matrero proves to be the most emphatically characteristic Ginastera work of the three with a welter of cross-rhythms to begin which Tsou complicates even more by adding in her own sforzandi; followed by a move into less bitonal territory and a clear tune weltered out on top of the constant whirl of a bass line. This interpretation is long on excitement if not on clarity, but then the composer was clearly intent on whipping up energy and bota-stamping enthusiasm, even if you had to keep an eye out for melodic syncopations that left-foot you and your expectations of predictability.

Those of us dedicated to the Australian Chamber Orchestra through successes and missteps became pretty familiar with Piazzolla at his best when Scots accordionist James Crabb collaborated with Richard Tognetti and his amiable band in a concert tour many years ago, the outcome one CD in 2003, Song of the Angel, and another two years later – Tango Jam, Vol. 1. Crabb is back this February for the first of the ACO national series concerts in a program that includes Libertango (still to be heard on the Tango Jam CD). Tsou’s two other Piazzollas – Oblivion and Milonga del Angel – also appeared on the ACO/Crabb 2003 recording.

This CD begins with Oblivion and Tsou handles it without any complications, but also without much interest. The composer’s melancholy melody is strait-jacketed into a shape where its sudden semiquaver bursts disappear and unexciting quavers balance each other in every second bar; the piece needs some bite but in this approach it suffers from an excess of rubato and a cloying lushness in the harmonic arrangement. Not much different comes in the Milonga where the harmonies are smoothed into cocktail bar inoffensiveness. Tsou’s ornamentation is welcome if not as spiky as I would have preferred and only a few liberties are taken with the metre. Libertango comes across as – eventually – clumsy. Tsou’s opening sounded fair enough as she worked through an extended introduction before hitting the chief melody, but at a few spots the rhythm paused while a glissando was negotiated with too much care, or a register move wasn’t snatched but proved ponderous. It’s a dance,. after all, and you have to provide certainty to the punters involved in this exhibition of self-indulgent strutting.

Granados appeared first in the Spanish contingent with his Spanish Dance Andaluza, fifth in the 12 Spanish Dances collection of 1890; not from the two Op. 37 dances as listed here, I believe. This is a familiar piece, Tsou tending to elongate the first downbeat notes in some bars – like the first. The interpretation is highly coloured, even if one of my favourite details goes missing: the little semiquaver figure that ends bars 16 and 17, in which the lower right-hand notes do not sound most of the time. Then, what to make of Tsou’s reading of the Intermezzo from Goyescas? Any suggestion of guitar pizzicato is absent, ritenuti are inserted at will. syncopations are mushy, the counter-melody that takes over at bar 40 is over-emphasized, the few fortissimo explosions are not emphatic enough, and the overall approach lacks firmness.

The Falla brace begins with an extract from The Three-Cornered Hat ballet, the Miller’s Dance which must feature among the composer’s most well-known works. Tsou makes a firm case for this boldly-contoured set of pages with no complaints coming to disrupt attention until the final accelerando which could have been less slow to take off. There’s no indication as to where this CD was recorded, nor by whom, but this particular track lacks acoustic resonance and would have gained from a favouring of sympathetic upper strings for a piano piece that stays firmly in the middle to low instrumental ranges. As for the second track, this is labelled La vida breve; it turns out to be only the Spanish Dance No. 1 from that opera’s score and the performance is a mixed bag with some nimble finger-work early on alongside some labouring when sections draw to a close. Most surprising of all is the conclusion that Tsou provides which is a light tinkle to round off the Animando poco a poco stretch; of the final Piu vivo 17/18 bars which usually bring this extract to a rousing conclusion, there is no sign.

Prelude/Asturias/Leyenda by Albeniz is one of the most popular pieces of Spanish music – up there with Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez middle movement and De los alamos vengo, madre – but you can see pretty quickly why it’s such a gift for guitarists. Tsou has the usual trouble in negotiating those full-blooded right-hand chords between bars 25 and 45, later bars 147 to 167: it’s very hard to make the jumps and keep in time. But her handling of the middle cantando (bars 63 to 122) is excellent, part from a tendency to cut short the rests after each fermata. Most of the staccato running line is clear and clean. Finally, No. 3 in Albeniz’s Chant’s d’Espagne finishes of the echt-Spanish tracks. Sous le palmier receives a fine interpretation, packed with atmosphere and highly responsive to the composer’s tango rhythmic underpinning but rhythmically fluid, Tsou secure enough to follow her instincts in shaping the melody line and inserting some subtle hesitations throughout this most successful of her essays in ye (comparatively) olde-time Spanish music.


We won’t all be home for Christmas

THE OCTAVE OF CHRISTMAS

Melbourne Octet

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday December 9, 2021

It’s hard to remember much about last year’s Christmas in musical terms. Did anything happen? Certainly nothing much in Brisbane, where such activity was more likely to come about than anywhere else in the country. At all events, this year we came upon an unexpected pleasure, one I found at the last minute and featuring a spartan ensemble – our own version of VOCES8 – that worked through a near-hour’s worth of choral music. We began with Perotin’s famous organum exercise, Viderunt omnes (well, some of it) and ended in Martin and Blane’s sentimental Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas of 1943. For obvious reasons, the whole enterprise took on characteristics from all over the place. You had music that only choirs like the Ensemble Gombert would mount; soon after came pieces that could have graced an Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Noel! Noel! program; alongside these, you fell into Australian Boys Choir mode; creeping under the cultural portcullis came shades of the anything-goes approach typical of every Myer Bowl Carols by Candelight.

As well as negotiating hairpin bends of repertoire, I also relished coming across singers whose work I’d enjoyed many times in bygone years, like bass Jerzy Kozlowski who enriched my experiences through his appearances with the Gomberts and Nick Tsiavos’ Jouissance ensemble, not to mention turning up in unexpected places like playing the Sacristan in an Opera Australia Tosca. Also making a welcome re-appearance was tenor Timothy Reynolds whose clean timbre is still clearly piercing through multi-line complexes. In fact, I have experienced most of the Octet’s male voices – bass Oliver Mann in Bach, Christopher Roache’s tenor/countertenor in Ballarat, Southgate, and the Mornington Peninsula. The one male voice I didn’t know was that of tenor Christopher Watson.

Of the women, I have seen soprano Katherine Norman in a variety of ensembles but not her colleague Elspeth Bawden. Alto Helena Ekins’ profile indicates that I must have heard her on several occasions; alas, the memory is not what it was. However, as a unit, the singers managed quite well, if the balance proved uneven in some of the earlier pieces attempted, and a few wavering pitches showed that the operating zone wasn’t completely comfortable for everyone – neither in ensemble nor in physical situation.

To put it bluntly, much of this program would have come off more successfully in a church with a bit of resonance. The Athenaeum 2 space is an odd area where I’ve seen little beyond the premiere of Gordon Kerry’s opera Medea 30 years ago, and another event I recall only for its inclusion of Schoenberg’s arrangement of Funiculi, Funicula. For my taste, the Octet sounded too close – or too closed in – which meant that any errors were immediately obvious, especially production imbalances and the occasional early entry. Watson didn’t push himself forward as the body’s fulcrum but remained a model of discretion, especially once his various ships had been launched. Moving into first gear, that initial Perotin work impressed for its still-breathtaking vitality, thanks to the bright top three lines. Still, it finished at bar 37 in my edition, the title words having been treated but not the rest of the Gradual. Moving along a few temporal spaces, the male voices initiated a fair attempt at the medieval English carol Sing we to this merry company, working through three of the five verses I’ve come across and showing a keen responsiveness to its harmonic crises.

I believe that the Praetorius version of In dulci jubilo involves 8 parts. As the piece moved on, Elspeth Bawden was – to put it nicely – challenged by the complexity of her support; a shame as this carol stands above nearly all others in any language for its splendid shape of line and eloquent verbal matter. Only a slightly enthusiastic entry from Kozlowski in the last line ruffled the group’s unanimity. Another Praetorius motet, Joseph, lieber, moved smoothly along its way with only a falter in the pulse at a couple of measures near bar 29 to distract us, compensated by a finely shaped last five bars.

Dering’s Quem vidistis got off to an uncertain opening but impressed for the briskness of pace adopted for its duration. A pair of arrangements by John O’Donnell followed in quick succession: Noel nouvelet involving a lot of melodic repetition but featuring an unattractive mini-canon for male voices set against an excellent conclusion to very four-square material; and Il est ne, le divin Enfant, enriched by a plethora of Noe interjections, musette imitations, modulations to quicken the pulse, and a fine fade-out with only a querulous soprano note disturbing the final chord.

The Octet continued a trek through the realm of Australian Arrangement Land, and for a while it looked as though we were in for the long haul. Lachlan McDonald paid his respects to Gabriel’s Message with plenty of 2nds to add briskness to this usually mild carol. It was during this piece that Christopher Roache’s versatility became apparent – a facet or two that should have struck me much earlier in the night. The male voices provided appropriate humming while both sopranos jaunted through the Virgin’s response, ‘To me be as it pleaseth’. McDonald also took the opportunity to bathe us in Gloria treatments, later allowing Mann and Kozlowski to take on the original melody while a ferment erupted above them which didn’t aid the textual clarity or the light narrative. As with O’Donnell’s treatments, the harmonic sliding here proved rich and sometimes unexpected.

Regarding the almost unavoidable Away in a manger, Michael Leighton Jones’s version employs a soprano solo in the outer verses with a supporting syncopated susurrus of ‘lullaby’. All forces participated in a harmonized middle stanza before the final quatrain saw a refreshing rhythmic flexibility applied in the top line. Another inevitability, Silent night, gained some tension from David Brinsmead’s version which proved satisfyingly rich for the first two stanzas, including a forceful soprano descant at the opening to Verse 2, a glee club-style modulation to enter the final sextet, and a consoling recapitulation of ‘Sleep in heavenly peace’ at the carol’s final bars.

Michael Leunig has written several poems to do with Christmas, but nothing as moving as his I see a twinkle in your eye. Calvin Bowman’s setting alternates between monolinear and chorale, although it moves into greater complexity for a time before its emotionally warm conclusion on ‘The manger where the real things are’, which was definitely one of those points in this program which cried out for an ecclesiastical echo. As did Britten’s A Hymn to the Virgin which suffered from a lack of resonance and the equality of numbers in both choirs, as well as the first choir’s soprano trying to carry off the climactic Of all thou bear’st the prize against her enthusiastic colleagues. By contrast, Warlock’s Benedicamus Domino sounded earth-bound and beery, handled with fitting emphasis and dynamic girth.

Back to more arrangements with the Austrian escapee, Still, still, still, featuring a spotlight on Reynolds riding a genial support. British choral expert Alexander L’Estrange left nowhere for his sopranos to hide when the text turned English, but interest returned with the melody’s displacement between tenor, bass, and female voices, not to mention a little burst of ‘Schlaf in Himmlischer Ruh!’ to round off the carol. L’Estrange’s handling of In the bleak midwinter gave prominence to Christopher Watson who had the first and last words, Mann making a worthy if less substantial contribution in between. A canon between sopranos and the male voices made a mish-mash of Verse 3’s opening while Roache was granted the briefest of solos. But then, L’Estrange’s final verse moved the focus across the whole ensemble in a rather slick/smooth version that tended to make thick plum sauce of Christina Rossetti’s poised lines.

At last, we came to Jingle Bells in an arrangement by British musician Ben Parry that revived the groovy Swingle Singers’ sound, providing air space to Kozlowski’s deep and perky timbre, Roache’s tenor giving him a run for his money. As you’d expect, the whole crowd got right in there with a-ring-a-ding-ding as the sleigh-bells got a working over. Parry moved us into 6/8 for a bar or two in the sort of exercise that would go down a treat at Marquette University. Ditto Have Yourself etc. in a version by another British musician-of-all-trades, Peter Gritton. Here were more ‘close’ harmonies and laid-back sentimentality with a memorable glissando. Watson introduced an encore – yet another L’Estrange product, this time I’ll be home for Christmas. A world premiere, no less, it held plenty of exposed work for Watson’s own light timbre. Just the thing to finish off a final trio of originally-USA products and standards from the formidable republic and testifying to that nation’s terrifyingly banal debasement of a great Christian festival.

Still, at the end of this recital, we had the shades of Perotin and Praetorius still hovering to show us what Christmas can be, or better, what it can mean to musicians of stature, what it meant – and could mean – to be committed to the mystery of God made Man and finding something to be celebrated in that, rather than demeaning your intelligence to the level of a Dudley Dursley count-the-presents regime or seeking a Nativity vision at the bottom of a glass through which a red-nosed reindeer brings the promise of seasonal surfeit and stupidity. This recital made for a double-edged gift from the Octet, then – but thanks anyway; in this time of distress and disappointment, we’ll take whatever small-scale treasures we can find.