Clap yo’ hands

MOZART MENDELSSOHN BEETHOVEN

Tinalley String Quartet

Concourse Concert Hall, Chatswood

Thursday November 3, 2022

(L to R) Adam Chalabi, Lerida Delbridge, Justin Williams, Patrick Murphy

I’ll never understand audiences, even after a lifetime of sitting among them through all kinds of musical events. My current prime instance of incomprehension was to do with this recital from the Tinalleys, given for the Sydney Mozart Society which runs a worthwhile series each year. Put simply, these experienced musicians presented a program to satisfy conservative tastes and carried out their task to a fine standard: three perceptive interpretations with remarkably few quibbling points. Yet the responses from this pack of patrons proved to be half-hearted. Are they used to better? I’d suggest not, given what I’ve heard from Sydney’s chamber music scene. But there you go; I just hope that the group wasn’t too let down by the lack of enthusiasm that met their dealings with Mozart K. 421 in D minor, Mendelssohn’s Op.80 written as the composer neared his end, and Beethoven’s Harp Op. 74.

I’ve been reviewing the Tinalley players since their beginning – or close to it. Second violin Lerida Delbridge and viola Justin Williams are surviving founders from the ensemble’s establishment in 2003; cello Michelle Wood, also a founder, only left in 2017 which, to me, is yesterday. I barely remember former first violins Kristian Winther and Ayano Ninomiya but neither was in the position for very long; a year or two each, possibly. And foundation member Emma Skillington’s occupation of the second violin chair till 2006 while Delridge was on first has completely receded into the ever-encroaching mists. Current cello Patrick Murphy I’ve encountered in his previous life as a member of the Tankstream Quartet, while the most intense exposure I’ve had with Adam Chalabi has come through his pit work leading Orchestra Victoria. To put the current state of play into some contemporary perspective, Chalabi, Delbridge and Williams have been Tinalley collaborators for well over a decade, with Murphy the Johnny-come-lately in 2018.

More surprising is the group’s association with Queensland at which state’s university it has been Quartet in Residence since 2018. Chalabi is Associate Professor of Violin at UQ; Murphy is Cello Performance Fellow at the same institution. Further south, Williams holds the post of assistant principal with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra where Delbridge is assistant concertmaster. Since moving here, I’ve heard very few samples of music-making from the University of Queensland; its competition, Griffith University’s Conservatorium, is much better placed in terms of access – well, for those of us who travel a fair way for our music. So, nothing from the Tinalley for some time before I left Melbourne at the end of 2019 – just before everyone pulled in their aesthetic horns. A true pleasure, then, to find the group undiminished despite personnel vagaries (slight) and performance opportunities (also light-on).

In this full-bodied program, the players aimed high. Their Mozart came across with a welcome brisk coherence, evident in a clipped reading of bars 15 to 16 where togetherness is all. But then the entire exposition to this initial Allegro moderato maintained involvement on both sides, in no small measure due to the Australian Digital Concert Hall‘s exemplary miking of the players in this half-empty, resonant space. Each player emerged from the mixture with character, like Williams during the development in an urgent, edgy line. Indeed, this section passed all too rapidly (Mozart’s fault) before the last pages, Chalabi in excellent form across his triplets beginning at bar 98. Sadly, the group eschewed the temptation to repeat the ‘second half’, as they might have done, if my Barenreiter edition speaks truly.

Similarly, the group didn’t observe the Andante‘s repeat possibilities but, by the time we arrived at bar 66, the prevailing synchronization level was high (where better? The movement is here at its final reprise) and the only flaw I found was in missing the low G of Delbridge’s bar 83. You could appreciate the Concourse Theatre’s echo in the following Allegretto, alongside Chalabi’s care with the Trio, that section’s resonant second-half duet with Williams delighting even more the second time around, as did the dynamic relief at the chromatic slips from bar 23 during the Menuetto‘s reprise. Just when you got used to the abstention from repetitions in the finale variations, the players offered one in the second half of Variation 4! Yet again, the approach proved attractively crisp with respect shown for the score’s inbuilt balance, so that Chalabi didn’t feel the need to saw out his semiquavers in Variation 1 and his duet-of-sorts with Delbridge across Variation 2 where their cross-hatched fortepiano accents proved an illustration of cohesion in action. Across these pages, the only defect I heard came somewhere in Williams’ chromatic ascent in bar 91, almost forgotten by the enunciative consonance between both violins in their octave work during Variation 4.

A deftly ambiguous Piu allegro brought this work home, that brilliant fade to grey over the last 9 bars carried out with restraint underlining the composer’s remarkable lack of flamboyance – or rather, his maintaining of the melody’s quiet desperation up to its final flickers. I found this to be splendid music-making but the Society greeted the end of play with tepid applause.

Then, the Tinalleys made the jump of 64 years to Mendelssohn’s last string quartet in which the dark canvas has been alleged to represent the composer’s grief on the death of his sister Fanny. As an elegy, the work isn’t right because you don’t find many traces of resignation or emotional distance (except insofar as Mendelssohn was unable to move into deep tragedy with conviction), but it does convey agitation and a well-mannered despair. To be honest, I don’t understand Felix’s devotion to Fanny – or any such intense devoted-sibling relationship – especially as both brother and sister had families of their own and his emotional collapse on learning of her passing belongs to a sensibility that strikes me as over-ripe. Nevertheless, this Op. 80 is his last major work and a considerable creation, regardless of its gestational sources.

Right from the opening flurries, this interpretation showed determination, the musicians disciplined in their scrubbing semiquavers and vaulting triplets. Chalabi’s high B flats at the Allegro vivace assai‘s climax proved true and gripping while Murphy’s minim-rich line under his colleague’s subsiding antics before the key change to F Major came across with persuasive richness. As well, the Presto final pages showed a boldness and mutual confidence that did fine service to a passage in which the composer comes close to non-straitened anger. Not much wrong with the Allegro assai although the sforzando markings that, in my edition, are peppered across this scherzo were not remarkably different from their surroundings which stayed at a forte level most of the time. More high-quality duet work came from Williams and Murphy in octave duet for the Trio but, yet again, the group impressed most with their quietly lugubrious recall of that Trio in this movement’s concluding 38 bars.

Every so often, Williams’ viola tended to overpower Delbridge in dialogue passages across the Adagio to this work but my main problem with this section was a reticence in Chalabi’s line at the mid-movement change of key, particularly at the top line’s exposed moments. Against that, set the tenderness brought into play during the final passage following Murphy’s descending scale solo: a moment where the emotional wrench is reined in but intensely moving. To finish, Mendelssohn uses brief motives for an Allegro molto, here given as much fluency as practical, these musicians wresting full power from the rhythmically conjunct duets and trios that occupy much of the action. Indeed, the movement maintained its excitement, the circumscribed energy close to emotionally moving for its straining against Mendelssohn’s innate self-control. Yet again, the Society enjoyed a worthy rendition that brought out the score’s best features with fine skill; and, once more, the response proved lukewarm.

And so to the big-boned Beethoven work which came into being about half-way between the composition of this program’s other two elements. No second-half falling-away here: the Tinalleys preserved their discipline, well exemplified by the rhythmic precision of the Poco adagio‘s 7-bar sentence leading into the first movement’s main body. The complex sounded a tad unsettled in the violins’ first alternating pizzicati dialogue but the ensemble work proved remarkably lucid; for example, in the duet of extremes between first violin and cello that starts at bar 96 and continues almost until the recapitulation. But all credit to Chalabi for his handling of the Bach-reminiscent semiquaver spinning that occupies central position in the movement’s buoyant coda: as accurate as I’ve heard and avoiding all suggestion of patterns for their own sake.

Sweetness without over-sugaring typified the Adagio which was finely paced and exact, down to the soft chords that conclude the first episode of this rondo. Delbridge distinguished herself with a careful density of texture at her bar 94 entry, taking over an accompanying figure from Williams who sounded over-demonstrative by comparison. Despite that, the group treated this lyric with consideration and achieving over its length a placid eloquence. By contrast, the following Presto impressed as urgent, scouring the ear with its brusqueries. Even more insistent were the two Trio outbursts which gave you the sense that they would tip into an uncontrollable sprawl at any second – just what you want when handling a quasi prestissimo.

Chalabi announced the Allegretto‘s theme very carefully; too much so for me as some notes disappeared because the first note of each phrase was over-pronounced. But the six variations were deftly treated as Beethoven shared the limelight in this movement: every player gets a guernsey. Only one bar left an uneasy impression: the first violin’s concluding flourish to the first half of Variation V. But, one brief transmission disruption aside, this quartet concluded with convincing freshness, notable in the last allegro unison rush of semiquaver exuberance.

And you realized at night’s end why the group had been judicious in its choices of what to repeat and what to leave with one run-through. This was a solid night’s work, just fitting into the usual two-hour program length that used to be normal practice but is rare in our current era of the short-change. It doesn’t need to be hammered again, but I will: this eloquent reading was met with slightly more applause than had greeted its programmatic predecessors, but not nearly enough to show sufficient acknowledgement of the Tinalley players’ level of professionalism and insight. I’ve got uncomfortable memories of Bernard Heinze scolding a Sydney Town Hall audience for its inertia after he’d conducted the first Australian performance (I think) of Walton’s Symphony No. 2. But that was in part the result of a mediocre run-through of a tiring score, while this Beethoven interpretation was undeniably excellent. If for nothing else, we need to reinforce our musicians’ self-esteem, particularly when they are functioning at a high standard in their craft.

Having a go

BOHEMIA AND BEYOND

Geelong Symphony Orchestra

Costa Hall, Deakin University, Geelong

Saturday October 22, 2022

Stefan Cassomenos

This regional orchestra was established in 2016 and, under favourable conditions, it has managed to present three concerts a year since then, apart from the recent Plague Years that are now being re-evaluated as not as perilous as first thought; a marvel to be living through historical re-writing, unabashed to the point of brazen. Even in its early years, it didn’t come to my attention in the same way that the Stonnington Symphony did during my decades in Melbourne. Of course, I heard enough of the Malvern people to know that their efforts were more am than pro, their work sometimes painfully laboured; which made expectations of the Geelong musicians rather carefully non-commital. They remain so.

Saturday night’s concert as presented online by the Australian Digital Concert Hall saw conductor Richard Davis take his players through Smetana’s The Moldau and the E minor Symphony No. 9 by Dvorak. In the centre of this old-fashioned program, Stefan Cassomenos was soloist in Schumann’s Op. 54 Piano Concerto. From their archives, you can see that Davis is a regular with this body and Cassomenos has appeared in a GSO event almost four years ago to the day when he performed the Mozart K. 450 in B flat. As well, you can see that the organization’s ambitions are high as it presents familiar if taxing repertoire.

Like this night. The two Czech works feature among serious music’s most familiar scores, turning up in all over the Western world’s concert halls on a regular basis. And that’s fine, particularly if you get reasonably accurate interpretations; they don’t have to be plain sailing, pure velvet all the way, but you’d like to follow the progress without wincing. For the greater part of this night, the Geelong musicians got all the notes out and in tune. But they were hard-pressed in their work and it showed in some leaden pages during both the symphony and the concerto.

Things began ominously. We came online to see the orchestra on stage and a hush over Costa Hall – which went on for some time. Then the wind players started some little flourishes, general talk broke out, all of which again descended into an ecclesiastical murmur. Some wag called out an encouragement to general amusement (muted). Then the concertmaster arrived, followed pretty swiftly by Davis. But for a moment I was taken back to an MSO concert where the concertmaster failed to arrive for a very long time; we found out later that he was playing hardball in his contract negotiations with the orchestra or the ABC, I can’t remember which.

In any case, the unnamed leader arrived, then the conductor and soon we were into the flute duet that opens The Moldau. This exquisite dovetailing lasts for 15 bars and you’re meant to get the impression, before the clarinets arrive, that one flute is playing. Sadly, the joins here showed a bit too clearly. But the quadruple winds passage to bar 36 worked to better effect as the Moldau’s feeder streams led to the main body with some fine murmuring from the group’s violas. The texture sounded unduly ragged when the first violins cut out at bar 69 and the seconds were left exposed but the melodic flow was impressive up to the mood-changing Es at bar 118 where the horns wavered on an easy cliff-edge. Another case of lapsed concentration emerged at bar 133 in the middle of the rustic wedding where the communal attack wasn’t; surprising, as the Geelong basses made an emphatic underpinning for this entire stretch.

The strings (upper) took to the Moonlight change of scene with an unwillingness to let go, their minims and semibreves not very congruent with the woodwind’s burbling semiquavers. Later, the woodwind should have been similarly indulged around bar 233 but weren’t allowed sufficient lebensraum. So on to St. John’s Rapids and a prominent cymbal just before the river broadened (following a very muddy violins+violas upward rush at bar 332), and we reached Vysehrad which was despatched very rapidly. I don’t understand the need for a ritardando at about bar 404, the last heroic blazoning; perhaps an unconscious salute to marine pollution brought in by the Elbe. But those triumphant concluding pages before the moving last string arpeggios gave an impression of untidiness; the tone poem sounding at its best when handling the rustic central segment.

We enjoyed another solid break while the piano’s microphones were adjusted with a care that seemed finicky to me but was eminently justifiable according to the demands of the electrician’s operating handbook; the settling of microphones can take almost as much time as percussionists organizing themselves at a contemporary chamber music affair. I didn’t see anyone use the piano’s A for a tuning pivot: everyone just took the oboe’s pitch as the operating datum. Cassomenos used a score which I’ve never been able to criticise having seen the great Moura Lympany once lose her place during the first movement of the Emperor.

A worrying problem was the lack of synchronicity between soloist and orchestra as early as the tutti chords at bars 3-4. A momentary freeze in transmission, and we took up again at the soloist’s restatement of the main theme in C Major. It was hard to work out why the clarinet wasn’t sustaining notes for their full length in the following Animato section; minims tied to crotchets simply disappeared halfway through; as was the case further on at the Andante espressivo section. At Letter C in my old Breitkopf and Hartel edition where the work’s opening flourish is revisited, the orchestra came to life during some expert statement-and-response work with Cassomenos, whose attack moved into choppy territory at the Piu animato duet with the GSO first flute. Still, by the time he reached the next solo, just before the recapitulation, he was working at an excellent Schumann vein of controlled delicacy which continued up to his duet with the first oboe preceding Letter F. At the start of the cadenza, the pianist manipulated the piano’s upper line with impressive expertise, even if I found the trills at the Un poco andante to be over-aggressive. To end, the orchestra was late across the movement’s last four chords.

By contrast, the Intermezzo satisfied on nearly all grounds, the flute/clarinet/bassoon/horn ensemble punctuations both efficient and well-inserted into the narrative. Cassomenos momentarily hit a patch of uneven delivery 17 bars before the third movement eruption and the string rush that leads into that Allegro vivace was undisciplined. The pianist’s instrument sounded very weighty at the opening and, after a while, you took extra pleasure in segments where the soloist did not feel the need to punch out his contribution. That abrupt change to a march rhythm across the prevailing 3/4 bar lengths found the strings uneasy with where to put the emphases. A later unhappy point came just before the key signature change to F Major where individual groups were exposed, most of them rather thin in output by this stage. An uncharacteristic fumble from the pianist marred the endless right-hand quaver patterns 23 bars before Letter H and the return of the march.

At about this stage you were struck by how little ebullience had been transmitted during this movement. The flashes that should burst out in the tutti passages failed to appear and the pages packed with piano figuration were characterless – exercises without individuality. The end came as a release from tedium, I’m afraid, this last movement a slog for both performers and audience.

After interval, the concertmaster again made another individual entrance and the players again stood for the conductor; something of an excess in protocols of acknowledgement unless the parties involved felt the need for such mindless bobbing and unnecessary bouts of applause (for what? showing up?). What until this stage had been a suspicion became obvious when the Dvorak symphony got under way: this orchestra doesn’t have enough high and middle strings. For all that lack of weight, the bodies concerned put their backs into their work, such enthusiasm paying off well in tutti patches. Once more, we experienced an early unsettling inaccuracy from horns 3 and 4 in bar 16, the prefiguring of the Allegro molto‘s first subject. However, the performance settled into place quickly and the only disturbance during the exposition (which was repeated) came with a dynamic imbalance at about bar 129 where the woodwind sextet choir proved too strong for the melody-carrying violins (let alone the momentarily high-lit basses).

Davis isn’t alone in pulling back the pace in the string handling of Dvorak’s Swing low theme at bar 157 but it always strikes me as over-sentimentalizing this touching moment. A small glitch marring this movement’s development came in the horns (1 and 2 this time) at bar 220 but the fortissimo explosions impressed the further these players got into the score’s homely bravado; all that was lacking was a touch of high string hysteria. Finally, I couldn’t pin it down (viz. ascribe definite blame) but the rush towards the final cadence, at about bar 441, was faulty in what is a straightforward passage of play.

A famous danger spot, the opening wind chord to Dvorak’s Largo failed to reassure you of the ensemble’s security. That famous cor anglais solo didn’t enjoy the happiest bar 8 where a small clip disturbed the flow, and the second bassoon minim in bar 20 made a delayed entry. Once more, Davis is not alone in rushing through the string filler at bars 32 to 34, but is anything gained by this acceleration? At their first statement of the middle C sharp minor interlude (bars 64 to 67), the first violins demonstrated their potential as a highly responsive corps; and the string decet near the movement’s end was graced by an excellent, vibrant duet between the concertmaster and principal cello. I turned the volume up but still didn’t register the low D flat in the Largo‘s last bass divisi chord.

Happily, the following scherzo passed with loads of vehemence and crisp dynamics, my only quibble the clarinets’ restatement of the trio’s theme at bar 78 where the players weren’t quite on the note for a substantial octave stretch of 8 bars. Some more obvious problems peppered the concluding Allegro vivace. One of the brass missed the top note in bar 24; that lack of upper string power proved a detraction from the energy needed between bars 100 to 105. However, the stretch where Dvorak reviews his preceding movements was negotiated very well indeed and the strings made a graceful case for the decelerando at bar 220. In fact most of these last pages in the symphony came off successfully for this section, while a horn made a sad encounter with the top note of bar 268, and some players were jostling out of line at the approach to the Meno mosso e maestoso peroration, while the final chord could have been attacked more cleanly.

You can find a fair degree of competence in the Geelong orchestra and you have to wonder if the ensemble might have fared better with a program that wasn’t so well-known. When you’ve been familiar for years with these particular scores and the polish brought to them by great musicians – Ancerl, Szell, Brendel – it’s difficult to ignore any flaws, even when the interpretations on offer are based on laudable intentions. Obviously, I found this Smetana/Schumann/Dvorak trilogy only occasionally successful but, judged by the standards of other regional and suburban orchestras that I’ve heard, the GSO has a solid base on which to work. I’d like to hear the group at a later date, especially when performing music that doesn’t have a wealth of shatteringly fine interpretations readily available for comparison.

Simple tune under multiple hands

WALSINGHAM

Rosemary Hodgson

Move Records MCD 637

An excellent example of focus, Rosemary Hodgson’s latest CD centres on the English ballad Walsingham which refers to the medieval pilgrimage site in Norfolk, maimed and dissolved by Henry VIII during those years when he pursued a new marriage. To set the tone (literally), we hear the tune and some variations as it appears in the final lute book by Matthew Holmes. Then, Hodgson offers us uses of the same tune by some Elizabethan/Jacobean composers: Francis Cutting, John Johnson, Edward Collard, Anthony Holborne, John Marchant and John Dowland (two treatments from this most famous of Elizabethan lutenists). Several other writers get included in the 21-track album, somewhat dodgy entrants in the Walsingham banquet: William Byrd, Anthony de Countie and Gregorius Hywet.

Hodgson has rarely sounded better to my ears with carefully judged phrasing and a reassuring purity of articulation. Her delineation of the branch that gives flower to much of what follows, the anonymous Matthew Holmes’ setting, comes across with a wistfulness that speaks of the possibly regretful – doleful – background to the melody: a plaint for the priory’s destruction (yet another distressing blot on the origins of the British 16th century heresy). Mind you, the little that I can see of the original score follows the nodal chords supporting the tune but I suspect that, of the two Walsingham versions that Holmes copied, this is one I haven’t come across. Still, the whole field of Renaissance performance has become many-textured, to the extent that it’s rare that you encounter a solo piece that is played exactly as one particular manuscript requires.

For no particular reason, Hodgson then offers Byrd’s The Voice which is cited as coming from that extraordinary resource, the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book but under the title of The Ghost. This lute version follows the almain’s chord progression, I think, and the melody is sort of recognizably germane. Regardless, the performance is quietly buoyant with some attractive open 5th drones and only the slightest hint of an enunciative problem with the melody early in this miniature’s exposition. De Countie’s Pavyn could come from early in Elizabeth I’s regime when the man himself was a lutenist at court. The piece itself is a meditative gem with the faintest of flourishes at its conclusion; whether it was written by this musician is moot as nothing definitive attests to his writing anything, let alone this dance that bears his Christian name.

My reading of tablature is elementary at best but I think that the version of Walsingham we hear by Francis Cutting is the first of his two versions, although the differences between the two are slight. It is handled with an appealing flexibility which observes the bar-line accents so that, for all its folk-like simplicity of melody, the ornaments are set in proper place and time with only a small amount of leeway. The other Cutting track, Sir Walter Raleigh’s Galliard, is appropriately direct in its opening swagger but the piece’s character changes at bar 33 when the texture seems more compact, less flamboyant even if this is a version with some paring; Hodgson’s attack reflects this sudden shift down (up?) a peg with fine precision.

John Johnson’s son, Robert, is a familiar name from the English early Renaissance. The father’s work appears more rarely; a real case of wrongful neglect if A Pavin by Mr. Johnson is representative of his output. Both this dance and his Walsingham setting (where the melody gains a few feet – or so it seems) show an appealing control of emotional output, devoid of abrupt splurges but all of a piece, the pavane a model of quiet deliberation. I’m not really convinced about the inclusion of the Netherlands writer Gregorius Huwet in this collection; the grounds are that he almost certainly met Dowland during the latter’s visit to Germany in 1594, and his Galliarde Monsieur Gregorij is thematically akin to Walsingham and may have influenced the English composer’s own galliard on the tune (or vice versa). Preceding this effort comes Huwet’s Fantasia Gregorij. Is this the one that Dowland organized into his Varietie of Lute Lessons? It doesn’t agree with the score I have, as well as being less fitful in the sense of having fewer elaborate decorative devices. You can find traces of Walsingham in Huwet’s dance which is more assertive than any of the English translations of the tune we have heard so far. Hodgson gives the piece an appropriate firmness of delivery, heightened by a certain stridency in the top line.

The trio of Collard works begins with an unspecified pavan; one of the CD’s more substantial tracks, it maintains the optimistic tone set by its immediate Huwet predecessors with some surprises that aren’t adventurous but more quirky. Even in its minor mode, this set of pages reveals a light emotional band-width sustained across its canvas. Next, The Maye Galliard begins with involving energy and revisits the energy along its path, despite two phases where the rhythmic certainty falters; Hodgson gets all the notes out but it would have been more satisfying if the pace had remained consistent. As for the Walsingham variations by Collard, these come across clearly enough; the player does display a tendency to decelerate at the end of a segment, particularly if semiquaver runs appear.

Anthony Holborne’s exposure here comprises three pieces, two of them a little over a minute long. As it fell on a Holly Eve (the second-shortest track here) is a neat, slightly catchy tune with two bars of sentence-ending ornamentation that doesn’t quite convince. The Walsingham comprises a sporadically rich-chorded version of the original melody with the second half repeated; Hodgson handles it with almost exaggerated care. As for the Jest solo, this also begins bravely, as with the previously-heard galliards. But its semiquaver runs are a mixed bag, some fluid while others labour.

What follows is the second-longest of the Walsingham treatments – that by John Marchant – with an exhaustive 12 variations, the last two a rich coruscation of semiquavers. While the interpretation has an intriguing consistency, Hodgson’s sparkling top-layer falters occasionally – not into uncertainty but a seeming dogged insistence on putting things in a row. Even more satisfying is Marchant’s Fantasia which holds a rich vein of quiet grandeur, the piece moving forward at a stately pace that in its chord progressions smacks of inevitability.

Finally, Hodgson comes to Dowland through his Galliard on Walsingham: 24 bars that neatly divide into three discrete sections, all of which are here repeated. This short piece is not alone in embellishing the tune, although some moments are striking like the high tessitura at bar 11, and the soprano avoidance of the first beat in six of the last nine bars. Hodgson negotiates this trifle efficiently, even if some of the chords sounded under-populated. The G minor Pavan, longest track on the CD, is a splendid example of the instrument’s expressive capabilities, especially plangent echoes between soprano and lower voices. For my money, this is the finest performance Hodgson gives us – from the first Lachrimae motif to the superbly optimistic final bar. As in the Walsingham galliard, so for Sir John Souch his Galiard: another 24 bars in three segments, all repeated. Again, a forward-thrusting reading with a few breaths along the way – no Julian Bream rugger-bugger bustling in this style of address.

Rounding off the CD is Dowland’s unadorned (!) Walsingham which presents as the longest treatment of the melody on this recording. It’s a remarkable conclusion because it comes close to a meditation in which the original’s melodic contours are not so much scrubbed as superseded in a splendid fancy where the composer wanders free from apparent restrictions. Hodgson performs this gem with disciplined rubato at cadential points, keeping to the forefront Dowland’s supple bursts of invention. It makes a suitable finish to this quiet celebration of a simple melody through the eyes of England’s rich school of lutenists.

November 2022 Diary

JOSEPH CALLEJA

Andrew McKinnon/Opera Queensland

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday November 3 at 7:30 pm

This recital has been postponed from early September and, as well as the noted Maltese tenor, also features soprano Amelia Farrugia (herself of Maltese heritage) and pianist Piers Lane. In other words, it’s quite a line-up – and so it should be, considering the prices being charged: $99 to $169 with no apparent concessions for the elderly or the young. Still, why complicate your box office management strategy? The associate artists get a fair share of the limelight; Lane will play two Chopins – the D flat Nocturne and the Op. 18 Valse brillante – and Liszt’s Tarantella from the Venice/Naples book, while Farrugia will rollick through Sempre libera, Musetta’s Waltz Song, Tosti’s Serenata and Lehar’s Vilja. She will also partner Calleja in the exquisite Tornami a dir from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, O soave fanciulla concluding Act 1 of La Boheme, and Bernstein’s Tonight for a big West Side finale. As for the man himself, he’ll be working hard before interval with La donna e mobile to settle us all down, Una furtiva lagrima to show his relationship to the greats like Tagliavini, and Cavaradossi’s Act 3 self-pitying (understandably so) lament from Tosca. Later, the tenor moves to the salon with Donhaudy’s neatly four-square Vaghissima sembianza and Tosti’s Ideale before hitting the popular trail with Charmaine, which the publicity material falsely attributes to Annunzio Mantovani; then, Moon River, which is indubitably the product of Henry Mancini; following which you’ll hear Parla piu piano – which also is not a Mantovani product but a gem from Nino Rota’s score for The Godfather. And Calleja leads into Tonight with a Bernstein classic in Maria from the same musical. I know Farrugia’s work pretty well and have heard Lane many times; Calleja is an unknown quantity to me in live performance but, as an odd recommendation, his French and Italian operatic repertoire is most impressive.

STUDIO SESSIONS 5

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio

Friday November 4 at 7:30 pm

This is close-quarters playing for a Classical period ensemble: optimal conditions for hearing two sunny masterpieces. The QSO’s concertmaster, Natsuko Yoshimoto, directs and plays along with Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 and the Beethoven No. 1 in C Major. Of course, we’re used to this re-creation of the leader-director character, thanks to Richard Tognetti’s lengthy presence at the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s principal desk; Melbourne has seen the same control/participation double-act from William Hennessy with his Melbourne Chamber Orchestra. One of the pleasures of this particular evening is that both symphonies are familiar creations: the performers would have met them before – several times, if they’re lucky. And they make a fine comparison as youthful products – Mozart’s work from when he was 18, Beethoven’s somewhere between his 25th and 30th year. For some reason, the earlier work has exercised an affection since its re-discovery in the middle of the last century; possibly it’s the gently aspirational nature of its opening ascending scale melodic pattern that prefaces a melodic feast which culminates in Mozart’s allowing his brace of horns to break into hunt-call mode only 16 bars from the end of his final Allegro. Along with Nos. 2, 4 and 8, Beethoven’s C Major Symphony is among the second-rank in performance numbers across the full series but its amiable brusqueries exhibit an individuality that leapt into astonishing regions a mere three years later. Still, not sure that I’d want to pay $75 for 50 minutes’ worth of music-making. Still, unlike the QPC event listed above, there are concessions available – and that egregious ‘transaction fee’ of $7.95 for doing – what?

MIGHTY RACHMANINOV

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday November 19 at 7:30 pm

This night’s big work is Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2; well-known to Melbourne audiences because of Hiroyuki Iwaki’s penetrating performances during his time there as chief conductor. I believe that conductors have given up the practice of randomly cutting the score at points where the argument grows too extended for their powers of concentration; just as well, as the work’s canvas is a marvellously rich experience, despite the repetitions and divergences. Conductor Johannes Fritzsch will relish slashing out every band of colour from this work which is one of the high points of late Romanticism. The QSO’s principal double bass will play solo in Paul Dean’s freshly-minted Double Bass Concerto – an addition to one of the lesser populated genres of musical activity. The night opens with Sydney composer Andrew Howes’ Luminifera – Wild Light for Orchestra which enjoyed its premiere in September from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Edo de Waart. I can’t find anything informative about this last-mentioned piece and haven’t come across Howes in any other context. But what an unusual program that features two Australian works comprising the occasion’s first half – and in a series that even the kindest observer would find staid.

HAYDN THE CREATION

Brisbane Chorale

Brisbane City Hall

Sunday November 20 at 3 pm

Once upon a time, they tell me, this oratorio was an integral part of our colonial musical culture; as popular as Messiah and as annually inevitable. How times have changed: with many years of concert-going behind me, I’ve heard Haydn’s magnum opus live once only – from the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir, bringing back into the light one of its erstwhile regular offerings. To my generation, the only fragment of this work that made any appearance in our limited experience was The heavens are telling chorus; even the opening Representation of Chaos took me by surprise at that first hearing, not to mention the garrulity of Adam and Eve in the work’s third part. This reading will be conducted by the Chorale’s director, Emily Cox, and her soloists are soprano Leanne Kenneally, tenor Tobias Merz, and baritone Jason Barry-Smith. The St. Andrew’s Sinfonia performs the work’s instrumental component; I presume this ensemble is associated with the Uniting Church at 299 Ann Street. The Chorale singers will be joined by the Oriana Choir from the Sunshine Coast to produce the requisite full-bodied volume for the hefty choruses in Parts 1 and 2.

STRINGS AND STEMS

Brookfield Rose Farm

10 Massey Place, Brookfield

Sunday November 20 at 3 pm

As far as I can tell, this recital is rather close to the open-air exercises that I’ve experienced across Victoria’s southern reaches – in places like Mornington, Flinders, Ballarat, the Yarra Valley and beyond. The idea is to give your patrons music in a picnic setting; people can bring along their hampers – or buy one at the venue – then find a convenient space, throw down a territorial blanket, have some soporific alcohol, and listen to the music on offer. Most of the time, these excursions are pretty civilized and nobody gets rampagingly bierhaus exuberant. Mind you, that is often due to the musical fare on offer which is usually small-scale. I don’t know anything about the Brookfield Farm, but the organizers have sited their recital in the property’s rose garden. There will be stalls, including a gin bar which strikes me as an advertisement for soggy depression. But the actual music content remains unspecified; there’ll be an 8 piece orchestra – what some of us call an octet. But I wouldn’t place any bets on the Mendelssohn Op. 20, or Mozart’s K. 375, or (wildly improbable) Schubert D 803; in a rose garden setting, you’d be more disposed to enjoy an afternoon of thistledown-light musical floralisms – anyone for Ketelbey or MacDowell? Tickets are $26 with no concessions advertised and the hampers/baskets range from $40 to $53 in both regular/normal composition and vegan. Here’s hoping for fine weather.

SIGNUM SAXOPHONE QUARTET & KRISTIAN WINTHER

Musica Viva

Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University

Thursday November 24 at 7 pm

Probably not the first visiting saxophone quartet we’ve seen on these shores, although I can’t definitely recall any predecessors. The Signum players – soprano Blaz Kemperle, alto Hayrapet Arakelyan, tenor Alan Luzar, baritone Guerino Bellarosa – met while studying in Cologne during 2006. Well, three of these players did: the original alto, Jacopo Taddei, has obviously been replaced – the group’s publicity had Taddei as still a Signum member in recent European appearances but Arakelyan’s managerial online page states that he has been a Signum since 2018. Whatever the facts, this last appearance on their Musica Viva-sponsored means the Signums (Signa?) have given tonight’s program nine times before winding up at the Queensland Con. Everything they perform here is an arrangement. They start with a version of Bach’s Italian Concerto by Katsuki Tochio, work through Gershwin’s Three Preludes in their own arrangement, continue the American engagement with the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein’s West Side Story in Sylvain Dedenon’s transcription, finishing with Dominican musician Michel Camilo’s popular Caribe as seen through the prismatic perceptions of Slovenian jazz guru Izidor Leitinger. In the middle comes Kurt Weill’s 1924 Violin Concerto; originally for soloist and wind (two flutes, oboe, pairs of clarinets, bassoons, horns, a trumpet and some extraneous forces in a double-bass with timpani and assorted percussion), it has been recast for solo violin and the Signum ensemble by Australian film composer Jessica Wells. The violinist in this half-hour rarity will be Kristian Winther whom I’ve not come across since that weird 2014-15 personnel split in the Australian String Quartet.

MESSIAH

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday November 26 at 7:30 pm

For better or worse, this great oratorio is polished off several times each year in Australia around Christmas, the impetus for this timing apparently coming from the Nativity Scene 4 of Part 1. The first performance in Dublin took place around Easter and the great thrust of the work is towards a depiction of Christ’s death and resurrection. However, there’s no real reason why you couldn’t perform this piece as a musical celebration of Pentecost, All Souls’ Day, Eid al-Fitr, Yom Kippur, or Diwali. This will be the one and only QSO performance and the event is to be conducted by Benjamin Northey, the most competent and likeable of the country’s crop of young conductors. His soloists are soprano Emma Pearson, mezzo Dimity Shepherd (no toying around with counter tenors for this reading), veteran tenor Paul McMahon and bass David Greco; even I’m rather impressed by the high quality of this quartet. As for the work’s mighty spine, these fall to the Voices of Birralee which is a Brisbane-based youth choral organization; great to see a change from your established choirs and you can live in hope that the Birralees will bring some creative energy to that final blaze of Worthy is the Lamb and the Amen fugue, a sequence that usually smashes a congregation – sorry, audience – into an aesthetic coma. Plenty of concessions available but the hall is packing out quickly.

STUDIO SESSIONS 6

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio

Sunday November 27 at 3 pm

Finishing its chamber music forays for the year, the QSO has curated a cleverly contrived program with familiar masterworks at both ends of the afternoon. Further, the organization hasn’t stinted on the number of players involved. At the start, there’s the Mozart Dissonance Quartet K. 465, last of the set dedicated to Haydn; at the end we hear the ebullient Schumann Piano Quartet in E flat where pleasures and surprises flow from every corner. In the middle is a slight piece of Richard Strauss juvenilia in the Variations on a Bavarian folk song, Dirndl ist haub auf mi’, a string trio which doesn’t amplify your appreciation of this composer even if it’s amiable enough in shape and utterance. All in all, enough to keep a string quartet in work, with pianist Daniel de Borah emerging for the big Schumann finale. The total playing time adds up to a little over an hour’s worth.. For which purpose, we hear concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto and her associate Alan Smith with Jane Burroughs fleshing out the violin ranks; two violas in principal Imants Larsens and Nicholas Tomkin; a similar cello group with principal Hyung Suk Bae and colleague Andre Duthoit. I don’t know who is participating in what (apart from de Borah) but that’s a wealth of talent to play around with. And there are concession tickets available for seniors, students and children although you have to allow for that inexplicable $7.95 ‘transaction fee’ that is so prevalent whenever you use a credit card – an unavoidable necessity in making bookings, it seems, and not just for QSO events.

No change

SCHUBERT’S TROUT

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday September 26, 2022

Olli Mustonen

In one of the ACO’s more chaste excursions, five members of the ensemble participated in this latest series event in Brisbane: violinists Satu Vanska and Liisa Pallandi, viola Stefanie Farrands, cellist Timo-Veikko Valve and double bass Maxime Bibeau. Presiding over the program sat pianist/composer Olli Mustonen – a favoured guest of this orchestra and whom I’ve also heard presenting a Beethoven concerto or two with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra – not the happiest of memories. On this night, he led a string quartet through Milhaud’s La creation du monde, then headed an outline of his own Piano Quintet which has been heard here before. After interval, Pallandi dipped out and Bibeau came onboard for the big Schubert quintet.

As soon as the French ballet score began, it all came back: the pianist’s idiosyncratic attracting your attention with extravagant hand motions way above the keyboard, the insistent dynamic dominance of proceedings, and the eccentric singling out of notes for emphasis while others recede or disappear completely. Excuses can be made for the piano’s hogging attention: it represents the missing 14 other instruments in the original score, even if it doesn’t have all their notes entrusted to its care. In fact, what we heard was Milhaud’s own arrangement of the five-movement work.

You could shut your eyes and ignore the manual flamboyance easily enough. But you couldn’t ignore the jerkiness imposed on the central Romance where the phrasing’s sense disappeared. Nor was there a way of avoiding the insistent dominance brought into play during the Scherzo; half the time, the quartet might as well have stayed at home – a pity as, from what could be gleaned, the players were well-matched (what would you expect, given their professional relationship?).

Mustonen’s quintet of 2015, to its credit, gives room for the string lines to make a considerable mark. Still, the piano part has a good number of florid virtuosic flights in a work which shows that Shostakovich didn’t live in vain. You’re faced with aggressive passages of high energy in the opening Drammatico e passionate where percussive cascades are contrasted with lush common chords for the strings, the whole heading towards a powerful conclusion. The following Quasi una passacaglia: Andantino struck me as being a good deal more than quasi; it made a fine contrast to the preceding pages as Mustonen’s attention turned towards a more lyrical scenario. Still, the variants almost fell into predictability in some segments where the actual scoring sounded repetitious; so some firm explosions came as welcome interludes in a format that presented as eloquent and, in some ways, as traditional as some later chamber works by Britten.

Mustonen labels his finale Misterioso but that descriptor seems to apply to the strings which generate some suggestive textures. As in the first movement, the impetus comes from the piano which yet again reaches some eloquent clangorous heights and urges the movement into rhythmic ferocity. Both here, and in the passacaglia, you come across Mustonen’s tendency to write plain diatonic passages in direct juxtaposition with grinding dissonances; despite the latter, I suspect that you could analyse this quintet – well, a large part of it – along orthodox harmonic lines. Which is not to decry the composer’s language which is a stage further along the historical road than, say, Shostakovich’s Op. 57.

I had to move at the start of the Schubert A Major Quintet; a brace of biddies behind me continued to whisper/chat after the work had started – the sort of inconsiderate behaviour that makes me blind with fury. But you can’t take it out on the socially subnormal – well, not in mid-performance. Having settled further back in the Concert Hall, I found Mustonen tinting the opening Allegro vivace by continuing with his peculiarities, vide the piano’s statement starting at bar 40 which moved in and out of focus as his outline favoured some notes more than others. This in a piece where the contours are so lucid that you don’t really have to shape them. Still, the string combination – Vanska, Farrands, Valve, Bibeau – was an unalloyed pleasure for its direct speech and fluent delivery without dynamic abruptness, making the exposition’s repeat very welcome.

Farrands and Valve gave us a glowing partnership in their duet at the change of key to F sharp minor in the Andante‘s bar 24, and again at the reprise of bar 84. B ut then, this whole movement was delivered by all with persuasive eloquence. Across the following Scherzo: Presto, Mustonen had an unnerving approach to his part’s frequent fp markings – the first note firm, the second two in the group almost non-existent. But the movement’s outer segments held your attention for their inbuilt vitality and bite; this is, of course, the music that the Australian Digital Concert Hall uses as a prelude to each of its broadcasts.

On to the famous lied and its variations. An appealing grace of delivery from the strings prefaced a reading of considerable merit. Not that it was free of some odd piano passages but the first variation, where the tune is entrusted to the piano playing it at the octave, came over with unexpected equilibrium. Later, Variation III with its demi-semiquaver bravura for the piano was handled flawlessly, each note audible and sparkling. Mustonen pounded out his fortissimo (well, they are marked thus in my old Boosey & Hawkes edition) chords in Variation IV, making Valve and Bibeau surplus to requirements. But his articulation in the final Allegretto, where the piano is entrusted with the lied‘s triplet-happy accompaniment, made for sheer delight, this segment an interpretative gem with just the right level of optimistic buoyancy.

Yet again, the ACO string representatives delighted with their restrained resilience across the concluding Allegro giusto with Mustonen emerging and disappearing throughout, then giving a ‘straight’ reading with the delectable triplet chains from bar 135 to 170, and later across bars 371 to 406. Indeed, much of the versicle-and-response pattern of this movement worked very well, the respective dynamic levels of strings and keyboard telling reflectors of each other – nowhere more effectively than in the last sample from bar 457 to 465, with that uplifting brief gallop to the end that brushes away (temporarily) several reservations.

So, another unsettling recital (for me) from Mustonen. Not that there’s much point in rehashing old problems: he’s now 55 and set in his musical behavioural practices. Judging by the QPAC audience response at the end of the Trout interpretation, he has plenty of admirers and you can find it hard to kick overlong against the vox populi – never forgetting the incredibly successful careers of David Helfgott and Andre Rieu, among others too numerous to mention. You just have to admit your bafflement – as you do when faced with the ongoing presences of Eddie McGuire, Scott Cam, Karl Stefanovic, John Laws and their peers: that perennial gang of home-grown mediocrities, who happily stand as cultural gurus for Monday night’s crones in the stalls’ F row.

The lieder recital at its best

WEAVERS OF SONG

Miriam Allan & Erin Helyard

Elizabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre

Wednesday September 21, 2022

Miriam Allan

Finishing this year’s Great Performers series from the Recital Centre, Allan and Helyard’s program was broadcast by the Australian Digital Concert Hall network. The night comprised six Haydn songs, six Schubert lieder, a brief set of six variations by Mozart, another set of six variations by Mozart’s friend Josepha Auernhammer on his Der Volgelfanger bin ich ja aria, and three of the D.780 Moments musicaux. An unexpected, quickly applied encore turned up Mozart’s Abendempfindung, the composer’s longest song and a somewhat stagey finale to the Allan/Helyard musical partnership before the Australian-born soprano returns, I assume, to her home in England and the fortepianist lays down his mantle as the Recital Centre’s artist-in-residence.

The event proved to be rich in eloquence, neither artist handling the Haydn pieces with prissiness or studied restraint, such as we’ve heard too often from British female singers who have accepted the odd idea that this particular composer needs kid-glove treatment and the more sexless you can make your line, the better. That approach can’t work in something as rambunctious as The Sailor’s Song which came across with plenty of vim and bravado, a close cousin to Rule Britannia and that bulldoggie Henry Wood that appears at every Last Night of the Proms. Most of the other Haydn works enjoyed full-bodied handling, the set opening with She never told her love which, thanks to its powerful accompaniment solos, gave us time to adjust to the clangour of Helyard’s instrument. Allan didn’t have the happiest of openings, with a slight production falter on the first syllable; still, the piece came over with a firm blend of melancholy and regret, true to Viola’s intent behind her lines.

Another familiar song, My mother bids me bind my hair, gave us an opportunity to admire Allan’s breath control and line-shaping in a pretty substantial score; not to mention her attention to details like the quaver rests across And while I spin my flaxen thread. Helyard linked these opening three songs with improvised (I think) post-/preludes, taking us from A Pastoral Song to O tuneful Voice where Allan moved to a rich dramatic vein, reaching a climax with a cadenza at with a vestal’s care and preserving a sense of purpose through all those repetitions of that it may ne’er decay on the last page.

For the second bracket of three Haydns, Allan began with The Wanderer and a full Gothic interpretation, Helyard’s fortepiano ominously doubling the vocal line for a goodly amount of time. Not that this reinforcement is uncommon in these six songs; vide A Pastoral Song, and The Spirit’s Song, this latter matching The Wanderer for intensity, notably from the fortepiano’s impressive loud chords, e.g. bars 4 and 6, with Allan wringing as much drama from this scena as possible without falling into Grand Guignol overkill at those suspenseful fermata points. It made for a well-judged contrast with The Sailor’s Song that concluded the evening’s Haydn expedition with amiable buoyancy.

Helyard’s rendition of Auernhammer’s busy variations distinguished itself for a certain piquancy of address, one where the introduction of a decelerando or six broke up some predictable matter. However, each section had its original touches, although the return of the song’s last 10 bars finishing off each variation was a very welcome return to base camp. The performer’s precision was hard to fault, with only a left hand mishap at the start of Variation 6 raising an eyebrow – and the insertion of a final solitary bass G (well, it isn’t in my old Artaria edition).

A few mishaps marred the delivery of Mozart’s work – in the theme itself and in the first two variations. But Variation 3 sounded immaculate, spice added through some clever ornamentation. By the time Helyard arrived at the second half of the last variation, he felt comfortable enough to take liberties with the score and toyed with its demi-semiquavers and his instrument’s expressive capabilities. Not particularly taxing Mozart, but holding individual flights at every turn of the page, the whole finishing with a reassuringly even-handed coda.

For her Schubert bracket, Allan included three master-songs and three entertainments. She opened with Auf dem Wasser zu singen with firm undercurrents in play and a tendency to emphasize each bar’s heavy accents; hence, the pleasure to be found in her long notes on Tanzet, Atmet and Selber. In these operating conditions, the fortepiano depicted heavy water rather than the usual ripples. Another slight attacking flaw emerged at the noun in the first phrase of Du bist die Ruh, yet the following pages’ vocal line flowed past with compelling commitment and clear sympathy, the whole rising to a passionate highpoint at the first erhellt while its repetition was given with appropriate restraint. Both performers made a definite character out of Standchen, Helyard’s mandolin/guitar stand-in more percussive than the smooth burbling we are accustomed to from your everyday piano. It was hard to understand why Allan didn’t give full value to the first note of Ach! sie flehen dich unless it was to heighten the expostulation’s drama (really?). But the interpretation as a complete unit made a considerable impact for its hard edges (even if Helyard muffled/muted his postlude) and rich breadth of timbre.

Trauer der Liebe is a small semi-gem which moved slowly enough to give us a more concentrated exposure to Allan’s curvaceous phrasing. Helyard made a change into triplets for the third stanza, reverting to the regulation music in the 5th last bar, thereby keeping himself and us entertained in fairly bland surroundings. Minnelied, also a page long, was given straight, without any problems apart from something odd in the keyboard during the second-last bar of Stanza 1. Here is another charming lyric, in this reading a vocalist’s delight because of the accompaniment’s lack of distinction. Another three-stanza, one-page lied is Seligkeit, a familiar, sunny delight-in-life creation, treated to a bounce-rich reading with both musicians who freshened up their last run-through with some innovations.

The Schubert songs were divided in half by Helyard’s performance of the Moments musicaux Nos. 2, 3 and 4. Of these pieces, the No. 2 in A flat Major impressed me as one of the recital’s highpoints because of the player’s ability to shape repetitious phrases and clauses with a skillful malleability and his command of shape in its several sections, ending with a moving final 18 bars in A flat in which the repeated chords and their subterranean variants made for one of those occasions when Schubert takes you close to the ideal. For the familiar F minor Allegro moderato, Helyard inserted a piece of paper into his fortepiano’s bass reaches, thereby producing an occasional side-drum rattle, even if the declared intention was to imitate a bassoon.

I’d never heard in live performance the No. 4 Moderato in C sharp minor; having experienced it, I can see why it doesn’t attract keyboard players as much as its predecessor. However, the middle D flat pages were a small revelation, not least for Helyard’s careful outlining of their inbuilt grace and tenderness, And the final five bars of this moment are a fine and moving creation/summation, here realized with touching skill and empathy.

I seem to recall Helyard saying that he and Allan have been presenting this program for some time, this night in Melbourne the end of their mutual endeavours. I, for one, was very pleased to have heard the program which, despite my nitpicking, was packed with excellent music-making. The whole exercise served as a counter-argument to that trite observation about ‘those who can’t, teach’; both these musicians are distinguished teachers and, simultaneously, top-notch performers.

October 2022 Diary

WHITE NIGHTS

Southern Cross Soloists

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday October 2 at 3 pm

I don’t know how they’re going to carry off this program. Take the ending, for a start: Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite of 1919 with its pairs of woodwind, 10 brass and numerous percussion, not to mention all those lush strings that feature heavily from first bar to last. Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo capriccioso exists in two forms – orchestral and piano accompaniments; you’d assume we’re getting the latter, especially as Konstantin Shamray is slated to participate in the program as well as cellist Richard Narroway who’s taking the solo line in this sober work. No problems with the Notturno from Borodin’s String Quartet in D. But what about the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 2 which requires nine woodwind and a horn quartet? Unless, of course, the piece is being presented in that two piano arrangement prepared for the composer and his son. In the middle of this all-Russian program (which ends with an untitled gypsy folk song from that country) comes a new work commissioned by the Soloists for themselves and didgeridu, composed by ABC Classic FM music director Matthew Dewey. This last is the third in a series of works that utilise the Aboriginal instrument, in this instance played by Wakka Wakka descendant Chris Williams, the Soloists’ artist in residence. Good luck to all concerned but I’m dubious about this sort of fusion exercise which I’ve experienced since as far back as George Dreyfus’ Sextet of 1971 – the best of a rum lot, as far as I can tell. Perhaps Dewey has something interesting to offer, especially as few of us know what forces the Soloists are meant to summon up for this first outing. But then, a kind of personnel haze has settled over most of this evening’s music-making.

CONTRA SCHUBERT

Shikara Ringdahl. Jonathan Henderson, Hyung Suk Bae, Vatche Jambazian

Holy Trinity Hall, Fortitude Valley

Friday October 7 at 6 pm

The title is probably not as adversarial as you’d assume; nothing like the state of being against the great song-writer in the style of my old friend Kenneth Hince who was contra Brahms, Vivaldi and Prokofiev, for instance. No: this Contra refers to the organization presenting the recital; a pretty new body (3 years old?) which seems to be an offshoot of the Southern Cross Soloists. So you’d be right in concluding that it’s all about Contra forces being engaged with Schubert. Which they are, for part of the night. Flautist Henderson and pianist Jambazian begin with the seven Trockne Blumen Variations by Schubert on his own song: the composer’s only chamber work for this instrument (or any other wind solo-plus-piano). Then Jambazian gets to work over three Sculthorpe works: The Stars Turn (with Ringdahl? Or in the arrangement for voice, cello and piano?), the five Night Pieces, and Mountains. Finally come two Ravel brackets: the Deux melodies hebraiques, and the three Chansons madecasses which involve all four participating musicians, including Hyung Suk Bae. Men and women have sung the first pair but Ravel designated the singer for his Madagascan lyrics as a mezzo. As far as I can tell, both sets are given complete pretty rarely, let alone on the same program. Including the Schubert, it’s something of a night full of short pants – nothing hangs around for very long, like the Liberal Party’s post-election promise to self-appraise.

GRIEG, LISZT, CHOPIN

Piers Lane

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday October 9 at 3 pm

Brisbane-educated Lane is back for a one-off recital in the local Medici series which presents piano solos as its sole brief, an undertaking that you’d suspect has been inherited (aesthetically) from Lorenzo and the rest off the famiglia. The night begins with the Holberg Suite as it was originally composed; here, the interest comes in noting the differences that Grieg employed when moving the five movements across to suit a string orchestra format. As well, you can admire the composer’s skill in writing excellently shaped four-square melodies that somehow avoid sounding as if they’ve been strait-jacketed into position. Then Lane moves back some years (about 30) to Liszt’s B minor Sonata, that famous spread-eagled masterwork in one (or four) movements that delights for its history of bamboozling the emotionally stunted, like Clara Schumann and Hanslick. After interval, we go back a few more decades, get all atmospheric and the Medicis bring out the candles for a second half comprising Chopin nocturnes – 11 of them, which is a little over half of the complete oeuvre and Lane covers the year-range of their production. It’s been a while since I experienced this kind of small-scale son et lumiere show – the most memorable being Alfred Hornung playing the cello suites in one of the Toorak churches, beginning each one in darkness and gradually building to full house-lights by the time he got to the gigues. This Chopin demonstration is, however, more in line with the original operating conditions, although it’s doubtful that the pianist/composer ever operated in a space as massive as the 1800-seat QPAC Concert Hall.

BEETHOVEN & DVORAK

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall., Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday October 14 at 11:30 am

Only two works are on offer here: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, coming in at about three-quarters of an hour, and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 which takes about ten fewer minutes. Put together, you’re not getting particularly high value for your money, in my estimation; at the evening performance, seat prices are over $100. But then, the QSO may be betting on the novelty appeal of a violinist-conductor, guest Guy Braunstein filling both roles. This musician’s main claim to fame was his serving as the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster for 13 years, suffering under Abbado and Rattle. But his work will be fresh, as far as I can tell: he hasn’t recorded either of these works, it seems. He’ll have his hands full with the Beethoven which only a few violinists have had the confidence to conduct while taking on the solo line. Tognetti has done it but his Australian Chamber Orchestra core are ultra-responsive; and I have hazy memories of some Russian attempting the same exercise with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Probably the symphony will fare better, if the interpretation doesn’t roam into the rough-edged bucolic, particularly in the glorious waffling of its finale.

This program will be repeated on Saturday October 15 at 1:30 pm and 7:30 pm

MOZART, MILLS & MAHLER

Ensemble Q

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday October 16 at 3 pm

Centre-piece of this program will be an arrangement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G, the easiest to imbibe of the whole series. This version pares back the (for Mahler) small forces of the original to just 14 instruments: one each of the woodwind, a horn, two percussionists, a harmonium or accordion, a piano, one each of the string lines . . . and, of course, a singer for the last movement (nobody’s listed to take on this role but the line still features, having survived into Klaus Simon’s rearrangement). That’s the symphony taken care of, more or less. What about the concerto? Daniel de Borah is presenting the K. 453 Piano Concerto by Mozart, here in an a quattro arrangement. Which is stretching things more than a tad: I don’t think you can cut the forces back to a string quartet format, not in a full-bodied masterpiece like this one. Sure, there are precedents – composer-approved ones – with some of the earlier concertos, but not with the middle K. 400 works. Anyway, the occasion’s overture takes the form of Richard Mills’ Little Diary of Transformations, which is probably referring to A Little Diary of 2002 for clarinet and string quartet, about which any available details reflect the title’s adjective. Still, it looks like it will be played as written, which is more than can be said about the rest of the entertainment. Q originals Trish and Paul Dean will be directing, and the ensemble’s concertmaster is the Queensland Symphony’s own Natsuko Yoshimoto.

VIENNESE CLASSICS

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday October 23 at 11:40 am

Mention of Vienna used to take my mind back to Willi Boskovsky, especially his visit to Australia in 1976 during which he brought his irresistible lilting approach to the Waltz Kings’ warhorses. Recently, the images have become more linked with Andre Rieu and his extravaganzas in Maastricht where any pretense at fin de siecle sophistication gets obfuscated by vulgarity. But this evening takes in more than the Strauss family; indeed, the only sample from that clan will be Johann Junior’s Emperor Waltz which applied to the German and Austrian rulers of the time and was premiered in Berlin. The closest, in similar vein, is von Suppe’s Light Cavalry Overture written 23 years prior to the waltz but just as entertaining. Once again, Guy Braunstein will be soloist and conductor in one, starting the night with Beethoven’s F Major Romance for Violin and Orchestra. Another work produced in the capital city was Schubert’s Symphony No. 8; Braunstein and his forces are offering both movements. A bit of neglected Mahler is being played: Blumine, originally the second movement in the Symphony No. 1 but discarded after the first few performances. This was written in Leipzig and premiered in Budapest but the composer is inextricably linked with Vienna, the city that eventually treated him like a dog. Kreisler’s Syncopation, here given in a Braunstein arrangement, was published (written?) in 1925, probably in Berlin but it’s an amiable essay by the Viennese-born violinist/composer to mimic the throwaway style of Scott Joplin. Australian writer Margaret Sutherland visited Vienna but it’s hard to find any connection with that city in her Concerto for Strings of 1953, from which the QSO will play the first Allegro con brio only. You may wonder why: that question is, like Ives’, unanswerable.

ANDREA BOCELLI

Brisbane Chorale

Brisbane Entertainment Centre, Boondall

Tuesday October 25 at 8 pm

I’ve never been to this 13,600-seat venue but have had experience of similar at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne where I saw Bocelli – and Carreras, I think. Such large spaces bring in the big bucks for artists and sponsors, even if you have to reconcile yourself to the mediation of banks of speakers and programs of questionable merit, although little in my experience rivals the Three Tenors at the MCG which proved that world-famous artists could money-grub alongside any over-hyped rock band. Anyway, tenor Bocelli – whom I last saw on screen mooning around an empty Milan Duomo – is back in this country to work through his repertoire in the company of a 70-piece orchestra and a 60-strong choir . . . which is how I found out about this exercise: on the Brisbane Chorale’s website. Well, at least you know what choral forces you’re getting; can’t say the same for the orchestra which might not be Queensland Symphony Orchestra standard. Still, what do such details matter to people who attend this type of event? As anticipated, no actual content details have been provided by TEG Van Egmond, although you can predict, with near certainty, that patrons will be treated to Amazing grace and Con te partiro as Bocelli kicks off a tour that then takes him to Sydney’s Super Dome/Qudos Bank Arena, the Hunter Valley’s Hope Estate, Rod Laver, and the Sandalford Estate in the Swan Valley. Perhaps the Chorale will accompany him all the way down south and across to the west? No: probably not.

MUSIC FOR THE SISTINE CHAPEL

The Tallis Scholars

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Wednesday October 26 at 7 pm

These British singers have, as their signature offering, Allegri’s Miserere – or so it would seem. It’s hard to see how this monopoly has arisen, except that they’ve recorded it and the British press has gone into overdrive to claim it for the Tallis group. I just don’t see how they handle it. The ensemble is small – about 10 in most publicity shots – and their numbers would be stretched; not so much to cover the nine lines, but to carry off that contrast built into the setting between a distant small force and a larger main body. Possibly, patrons will enjoy some physically challenging disposition of forces in the Concert Hall. In any case, this work was the preserve of the Sistine singers for a long time – another nauseating example of papal privilege – but we, the unwashed, will be able to hear it tonight, partly thanks to the intervention of the young Mozart (supposing that story is true). Speaking of which, the program also boasts Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli that was written for the coronation of a particularly short-term pontiff. This will be preceded by Morales’ Regina caeli – but which one of the four settings? This piece – whichever one it turns out to be – might have been written during the composer’s years in Rome singing in the papal choir. Then we have Festa’s Quam pulchra es and that’s OK as this writer sang in the Sistine Choir itself. Carpentras of the several Lamentations was master of the papal choir; Josquin (Inter natos mulierum on this occasion) brought status and credibility to the body when he joined it. Victoria (represented by his Magnificat primi toni a 8) lived in Rome, certainly, but I can’t find any connection to the pope’s music-making forces and this particular work was published in Madrid in 1600, long after the composer returned home. But you have to bow to British scholarship, particularly that stream represented by the ensemble’s erudite conductor, Peter Phillips. You couldn’t ask for better singing, even if it cannot hope to imitate the plaintive off-colour stridency that has typified the choral contributions to every papal ceremony I’ve heard broadcast over the past 70+ years. At the time of writing, there are about 150 seats left for this event.

TRANSCENDENCE

Roger Cui

Holy Trinity Hall, Fortitude Valley

Friday October 28 at 6:30 pm

Just what you expected: a night of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies, all twelve of them. A few have turned up in piano recitals – Chasse-neige, Harmonies du soir, Wilde Jagd and Feux follets – but I can’t remember sitting through the lot. Some wildman in Melbourne once played Mazeppa to generous acclaim but the rest are mysteries to most of us. Roger Cui is a well-known piano presence here in Brisbane at Griffith University and also at Coffs Harbour Regional Conservatorium. You don’t have to look too far into his CV to note an attention to the music of Liszt. So good luck to him in following the dream of preparing and presenting these repertoire summits. With limited experience, I’ve found that the transcendence promised is generally confined to becoming engrossed in the studies’ physical demands; but then it’s been many decades since I went looking for the aesthetically transformational in this composer’s work.

BRUCKNER SYMPHONY NO. 8

Queensland Conservatorium Orchestra

Conservatorium Theatre, South Bank

Friday October 28 at 7:30 pm

How lucky are the young musicians whose only task is to present this leviathan of a symphony! Conductor Johannes Fritzsch has to do most of the work, not least in deciding which of the many versions or editions will be used. After he found out that I knew nothing about Bruckner, an enthusiastic uncle gave me World Record Club LPs of the Symphony No. 4 and this one, which must have been the Vienna Philharmonic under Carl Schuricht interpretation of the 1890 version. It took me many years to investigate the disputes and recriminations concerning the composer’s two versions, his pencil alterations, the readings of Haas and Nowak, and the various rectifications carried out by more contemporary musicologists and editors. In any of its potential shapes, this symphony is a powerful and lengthy construct, the last of the composer’s completed scores in this form. It calls for plenty of determination and a fine ear for chromatic shifts, but a composition of this venerable nature – over 130 years old – should be a feasible accomplishment for the Conservatorium’s forces – you’d hope. At time of writing, there are about 60 centre-stalls seats left at $40 each.

MUSICAL THEATRE GALA

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday October 29 at 1:30 pm

Back by popular demand is this celebration of musicals, an art form whose title covers a multitude of sins. Inevitably, the program’s conductor and host is the gregarious Guy Noble who is charged with supervising some sharp material as well as lots of treacle. First, he takes the QSO through Gershwin’s overture to Girl Crazy – which is something of a slap in the face to the composer and his librettist brother as the work holds some brilliant songs that would eclipse much of what else is on offer here: Embraceable You, But Not For Me, I Got Rhythm. Still, top-class music like that would probably over-tax some of this occasion’s soloists: Amy Lephamer, Lucinda Wilson, Alexander Lewis, and Aidan O’Cleirigh – two fresh faces and two experienced artists. It’s not all dross from here on, however. Noble takes the two female singers through A Boy Like That from Bernstein’s West Side Story, and possibly Lewis will work at the same work’s Something’s Coming. More Bernstein emerges with the finale to the operetta Candide, Make Our Garden Grow. A couple of other musicals score two appearances: from The Sound of Music come the title song and the Something Good duet; I Dreamed a Dream and One Day More from Schonberg’s Les Miserables massacre; John Kander’s Chicago hit All That Jazz and Maybe This Time that was inserted into Cabaret; a surfeit of Lloyd-Webber with Superstar and Herod’s Song from Jesus Christ Superstar, plus the Entr’acte and Wishing you were somehow here again from the same composer’s The Phantom of the Opera. As you’d expect, patrons will be treated to a fair number of one-offs in this 20-number event, like Billy Bigelow’s Soliloquy from Carousel; Fanny’s exuberant Don’t Rain on My Parade from Styne’s Funny Girl; Popular from Stephen Schwartz’s unaccountably popular Wicked. But the big name that this occasion cannot do without is Sondheim, represented by the male duet Agony from Into the Woods, the hero’s self-justifying Finishing the Hat from Sunday in the Park with George, and Being Alive that brings Company to its conclusion. At present, there are plenty of seats available at the back of the stalls and balcony. Because of the amplification that this sort of show demands, I doubt if you’ll miss much from anywhere in the hall.

The program will be repeated at 7:30 pm.

WHEN WE SPEAK

Jodie Rottle, Katherine Philp, Alex Raineri

Holy Trinity Hall, Fortitude Valley

Saturday October 29 at 3 pm

This is a Brisbane Music Festival recital that is also a collaboration with the Brisbane Writers Festival, which I thought had been done and dusted in the first half of May but which resurged for a single day in September. Whatever else has happened beforehand or along the way, this exercise features a combination of music and words, involving three freshly minted musical works by the afternoon’s flautist, Jodie Rottle; the program’s cellist, Katherine Philp; and festival director/this event’s pianist, Alex Raineri. The musicians have collaborated with some poets (unknown at present) and these are the results. Other contributions are noted as ‘works by Smith, Cheney, and Ablinger.’ You’d assume that this last is the Austrian composer Peter; the middle one could be Lisa Cheney, originally from Queensland and now a Melbourne resident; the identity of Smith could keep you occupied for hours – Rebecca? Margery? Sam? Bil? Kile? Gabriella? Wade? The solution is a typically Australian one: you’ll never never know if you never never go.

WINTER JOURNEY

Brenton Spiteri & Alex Raineri

Holy Trinity Hall, Fortitude Valley

Saturday October 29 at 6 pm

So what distinguishes this Winterreise from others? Spiteri is a pretty well-known quantity, thanks to his appearances in several local opera companies; a tenor with promise, although his European forays have led to pretty minor roles in slight Offenbach, slender Rossini and a significant Monteverdi (L’incoronazione). But I don’t know anything about his abilities in lieder. And that form doesn’t come more demanding than this collection of 24 Schubert songs that run the full gamut from depression to despair. Even an experienced hand (or two) like Raineri faces interpretative problems, as the music is so well-known. Added frissons will apparently emanate from Ben Hughes‘ lighting design, which you’d assume will be just that – a sort of Scriabinesque kaleidoscope of colours rather than scene-setting backdrops. The promise is that this lighting plan will be ‘immersive’; a tad worrying, but you can always shut your eyes and concentrate on the music.

Back, in great shape

IN THE SHADOW OF WAR

Selby & Friends

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Elder Conservatorium, Adelaide

Wednesday September 7, 2022

Sophie Rowell, Timo-Veikko Valve, Kathryn Selby

Back on internet viewing in these post-COVID days (ho ho), the Selby & Friends franchise re-boarded the Australian Digital Concert Hall armada for this broadcast from Adelaide’s Elder Hall – one of the regular venues on the organization’s interstate touring schedule. Violinist Grace Clifford was scheduled to appear in this round but was injured, so her place was taken very ably by co-concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Sophie Rowell, revisiting her chamber music days when she led the Tankstream/Australian String Quartet. Valve has been an S&F regular cellist guest for some years now; just as reliable and informative here as he is at the principal desk of the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Two of the programmed works had direct reference to war. The Shostakovich E minor Piano Trio is a searing document decrying the evils of World War Two, with all the insight of a musician who partly lived through them by way of the siege of Leningrad. His use of Jewish-inflected melodies in the finale bore witness to the composer’s awareness of the Nazi obscenities revealed in the Allied armies’ march on Berlin. Matthew Hindson’s 1915 was written for the Benaud Trio in 2015 and refers to the state of mind of a young man who has enlisted, as well as depicting the loss and devastation that the Great War caused to so many. A different take, then, to the opening strophes in Peter Weir’s 1981 Gallipoli film where Mel Gibson and Mark Lee represented the popular vision that we have of this conflict by joining up with something approaching glee.

The program’s most lengthy work, Schubert’s E flat Piano Trio, was explained into bellicose context by several means. Two that stuck in my mind were the reminder that the composer lived in Napoleonic times. Yes, he did but it would seem that the conflict registered little on him; he was 12 when hostilities stopped and Austria partnered Napoleon during the invasion of Russia; after which, Francis I/II’s Empire was neutral until the French emperor was defeated and exiled. I’m not getting the picture of a young musician dodging rifle fire and/or conscription – or even having much consciousness of international or local conflict. The second proposition involved finding military suggestions in the trio’s Andante con moto. You might find a march there – a pretty slow one – but the suggestions to me across these pages are more aligned with the depressing trudge of the Winterreise narrator.

You can detect an earnest grief in Hindson’s short piece which commemorates the Gallipoli campaign from one aspect, one which has been adopted by this country as near-compulsory. The loss of close to 9,000 Australians in that Churchillian folly was – and is – a national disaster but one that should rouse more aggressive passions than sorrow, even viewed from this temporal distance. It may be that Hindson is speaking for the survivors, like Wacka in Seymour’s play The One Day of the Year, that character’s central soliloquy in turn speaking for those who fought on the Turkish peninsula through those soul-destroying days.

1915 is an elegy in C minor, not that distant in emotional colour from many other deplorations – neither as flashy as Britten, nor as depressing as Bloch. The composer has a fondness for using violin and cello in unison/at the octave and has constructed a well-shaped threnody that has a fullness of timbre alongside several relieving effects, like some quietly piercing violin harmonics, and the suggestion near the end of a bugle call hovering over the gloom. The piece occupies a clear-cut emotional territory, carrying out its mission of communicating the sorrow felt by families and any young man who blithely signed up only to face death and mutilation on all sides. In the end, as the historians tell us, it was a trade war in which Australia became senselessly if dutifully involved. Oh, well; now that the English Queen has died, any links with her fading royal house must surely dissipate, particularly when we’re faced with the absurdity of what will replace her.

Speaking of depression, the Russian composer’s trio is very well-known, particularly to those of us exposed to chamber music competitions where the work exercises a huge attraction to competitors, if not their audiences. Valve handled the opening harmonics solo well enough, although I wasn’t convinced by his octave leap in bar 5. Rowell displayed a fine firmness of attack at her high-pitched melodic outline 16 bars after the Moderato‘s opening. But the players all gave this section a fierce handling which proved most persuasive, thanks to its unanimity of purpose: the sense that the timbral fabric was of a piece, urged on by three consistent voices.

More ferocity blazed out across the Allegro con brio, Rowell setting a pace that proved exemplary; you were impressed by the prevailing level of energy but not swamped by a pell-mell rush. Selby followed a steady path, her note-chains positioned with care in a reading of feisty aggression – just as it should be, even given the trio-like relieving moments. In the following Largo, Selby gave the 8 dotted semibreves a considerable space in which to resonate, coming close to disconnectedness rather than portentousness. Rowell’s entry proved a relief for her warmth of colour in a lugubrious situation, excellently mirrored by Valve with both instruments close to a synchronised vibrato in the movement’s wrenching duets. The ensemble worked very hard to give full vent to the passion underpinning these pages, loosening intensity with fine discernment when realizing their two G Major bars leading into the finale.

I found the group’s handling of the Allegretto to be enthralling, particularly with those savage pizzicati before the piano’s arrival at bar 30 where the temperament changes from cute klezmer to vehement anger. Rowell’s use of rubato was consistent with Selby’s application of the same technique, offering variety to the regularity of pulse that typifies this segment’s opening. During these pages you became more aware of the excellent recording work carried out by ADCH technicians, each line clear and individual, even when Selby shifted into powerful top gear, throwing caution out the door and rarely faltering in her bravado. For once, we heard the conclusion in a proper context – without sentimentality or exemplifying frailty but loaded with strong despair and resignation. The effect was to bring the composer’s internal torment to the fore as he chafed against state restrictions and came to realize that his own country’s regime was of the same type which gave the world Treblinka and Majdanek.

There’s little to say of the big Schubert score’s treatment. It tired the performers, as you’d expect, but their balance and stamina carried them through, even across the work’s disappointing and lengthy final Allegro moderato. Fortunately, the players repeated the first movement’s exposition so that we could relish the delicacy of treatment given to the stretch from bar 48 to bar 90. Another telling extended passage came with Selby’s triplets and their sustained equanimity throughout the development. Later, Valve generated the shock of the performance at bar 298 with a remarkably gruff sustained G sharp. Slight section-interleaving pauses were employed, the emphasis on the work’s malleability (at least in this movement) with a suggestion of the composer’s Moments musicaux between bars 584 and 621, just before the main theme’s last statement.

As for the militarily suggestive Andante con moto, the players set up a stately march pace, the piece’s progress dotted with pleasures like a tender change to E flat Major in bar 41 and a further eloquent move to C Major proper at bar 129 with an ideally paced ritardando in operation across the last seven bars. The only flaw I encountered came at Rowell’s unhappy high E concluding bar 161, although the leap up to it is awkward. As for the canons at work in the Allegro moderato, you could not ask for a more mellifluous handling; later, you could superimpose a military flavour to the Trio‘s A flat waltz movement which broke through the gentle veneer of its surrounds with refined brutality.

Again, you heard moments of excellent craftsmanship in the finale. That trademark transference at the L’istesso tempo of bar 73 came across with illuminating lightness of attack; Selby’s repeated chords from bar 191 to bar 205 enjoyed a restrained resonance, yielding space to the strings’ octave melody; all executants contributed to a joyful Romantic surge across bars 264 to 273. But it was hard to maintain interest beyond bar 762 (!) when the main theme’s treatment smacked of filling in time; mind you, that’s just how that moment strikes me and there are plenty of others who see no fault in Schubert’s ‘heavenly length’.

Those of us unable to encounter Selby & Friends in live performance (the country’s north, west and extreme south) would have welcomed this broadcast, most importantly to hear that the body’s high achievement standards have not fallen off across the long interruption that has interfered with normal music transmission. Further, it is one of this ensemble’s splendid attractions that the Friends all fit so easily into Selby’s administrative and artistic frameworks.

We’ve heard better

FLINDERS QUARTET & VATCHE JAMBAZIAN

Sydney Mozart Society/Australian Digital Concert Hall

Concourse Theatre, Chatswood

Tuesday August 23, 2022

Vatche Jambazian

A program of familiarities offering no surprises: Haydn, Mozart, Brahms – and played straight through without an interval. Which would have been testing for the concentration powers of any intellectually frolicsome members in the Sydney Mozart Society, which organization sponsored the event, bringing one of Melbourne’s favourite chamber ensembles to the North Shore, then allying them with one of the Harbour City’s bright-spark pianists. We heard the last of Haydn’s Op. 20 set, that in A Major; then an a quattro version of Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 414, the earlier of the A Major couple; and the String Quartet No. 1 by Brahms in C minor (for a change of key). A most satisfying entertainment for the true musical conservatives among us – well, on paper.

But the reality was pretty rough and ready in its delivery style. Actually, that’s a bit too polite: a more proper estimation would be ‘scruffy’, with a cavalier regard for detail even as early as bars 8 to 10 in the first Allegro where Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba‘s first violin semiquavers were smothered under some low-lying chord support. And it wasn’t much better the second time around, although by then both violins had roused discontent with some ragged intonational pairing further into the exposition. Throughout, the emphasis rested on a sort of rusticity with little polish or finesse applied, as in the aggressive opening to the recapitulation. For all that, I was disappointed that the movement’s larger second part wasn’t repeated.

It seems unfair to single out the first violin line but it is dominant in this work; so, when it falters, the performance’s ambience is weakened, as at the uncertain repeated E crotchets between bars 19 and 20 of the Adagio, and a poor assault on bar 21’s top F sharp. By about half way through, the reading’s aggressive style had taken over, become the norm and you reconciled with the Concourse’s lively acoustic. Second violin Wilma Smith‘s descending thirds starting at bar 65 proved uneasy in execution but Helen Ireland‘s viola striding arpeggios at bar 55 and onwards gave the work’s progress some welcome solidity. Something went awry with the first violin’s B sharp in the third last bar, marring an otherwise amiable resolution.

Once again, both violins were not sufficiently synchronised at a pivotal bar 8 of the Menuetto, although the repeat showed an improvement. In fact, this part of the work worked better than others because it could take some brisk handling, although I found the Trio‘s second half clumsily treated – a case of bucolic overkill. Fortunately, the final Fuga held some cerebral pleasure, mainly for its internal workings (even if these aren’t that strenuous), and for the moveable feast whereby the first subject’s four-semiquaver group enjoyed both regular and clipped handling.

When Jambazian joined in for the Mozart, errors still occurred, if not so prominently. The violin lines at the octave in bars 13 to 15 of the first movement sounded disjunct in tuning but the opening tutti as a whole showed improvement as the score moved forward. The pianist matched his quartet-orchestra in determination although he could pull out the lapidary stops as well, e.g. the 8 bar solo at bar 152, and the delicate figuration later beginning at bar 224.. Still, mistakes arose for no apparent reason with the B notes at bar 14 of the cadenza, and a mis-step further on at bar 32. Just as in the Haydn, the Allegro‘s closing bars came over as willing but ragged.

You could say that matters improved during the Andante; certainly, the violin duo worked to bracing effect in the unison bars 15 to 18, a passage that shone out for its singular eloquence, even if a repeat at bars 51 to 55 was less unified in pitching Jambazian observed a disciplined attack but the movement’s fluency was disturbed by a transmission blackout which had to be compensated for in a later viewing (the ADCH ticket purchase means you can review the whole performance for 72 hours after the initial transmission). I didn’t see what was gained by the arpeggiation of the E minor chord in bar 76: the melody restatement post-mini cadenza was proceeding amiably when this idiosyncrasy came up: slight but uncalled-for, I would have thought. Still, the post-major cadenza finishing-off was fairly clean.

Jambazian took a hearty approach to the Rondeau when he entered at bar 21, rising to hyper-metallic by bar 81. An odd error blunted the player’s output, e.g. bar 91, and the thistledown-light syncopations at bars 122-3 were over-emphatic. Mind you, the player sustained this style into his reading of Cadenza B which here prefigured Beethoven, although an inexplicable arpeggio flaw at bar 17 made the near-truculent flame flicker. Mozart’s light-stepping finale would have gained from less heavily-applied power from all participants; at the end, you wondered where the expected light and grace had gone.

A more suitable fit for the Flinders’ energy came with the Brahms C minor Quartet where flexing took over pretty early in the opening Allegro; luckily, the exposition repeat gave a better indication of the ensemble’s talents although that middle B in Smith’s bar 7 triple stop didn’t sit comfortably in the mesh. But, for all of the enthusiasm shown, the dynamic became overwhelmingly heavy, as at bar 52 and in the urgency of Brahms’ development which often bordered on hysterical. When the temperature cooled, strange things happened like a palpably wrong note in the violin 1/viola octave unison at bar 162. And moments that you anticipate with relish, like the wrenching violins’ duet between bars 178 and 181, misfired because of an absence of lyricism. Occasionally, Pavlovic-Hobba inserted a portamento that recalled a delivery style from a bygone age (he was alone, it seemed, in exercising this individuality), but he gave a splendid account of himself in the final burst of high-octane fervour across bars 231 to 239.

Not that you hadn’t noticed her until now, but Zoe Knighton‘s cello solo at bar 7 of the Poco adagio made for a welcome burst of moderately applied lushness. But the whole group came pretty close to fulfilling expectations right from the start of this romanze, notably in detailed work, like the alternating arpeggios across bars 61-63. Ireland’s viola emerged in fine voice during the following Allegretto molto; unusually effective in this busy, if not cluttered, environment. I admired the carefully shared switches between Pavlovic-Hobba and Ireland from bar 38, even if you might have asked for more vibrato on the sustained notes.

A firm and bold account of the finale’s opening statement – all two bars of it – prefaced the ensemble’s double-faceted interpretation which held some fine passages of play juxtaposed with others that were unsatisfactory because of faulty articulation and dynamics that held little common currency as the lines hurtled forwards. Still, that underlying impulse was maintained and a carefully outlined sweep from bar 219 to the concluding cadence made for a more impressive demonstration than might otherwise have been expected, given the push-through impetus that obtained for this movement’s more thickly-textured moments.

I’ve heard the Flinders at work for many years now – right from the start, in fact, when Erica Kennedy and Matthew Tomkins began the group in partnership with survivors Ireland and Knighton. Other changes to the violin personnel have come about over the years, although nothing nearly as drastic has taken place as it has with the Australian String Quartet where, in comparison, Nothing beside remains. We know that COVID has brought discontinuity to musicians on all sides and in all lands, but ample rehearsal preparation time has returned as a concomitant of public performance. Judging by this night’s display, the Flinders have quite a way to go before they reach the level of homogeneity that obtained in the group’s earlier years. This will be particularly important when the possibility/probability of programming transparencies like Haydn and Mozart arises, although it appears that the rest of the ensemble’s year is headed for a more meat-and-three-veg diet.

Reflections of our struggle

THE CROWD & I

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday August 15, 2022

I would have thought that putting this exercise into operation was pretty simple. For all that, the process seems to have taken a number of years before it grew into its current form. The construct’s realization came from three prime sources: the ACO’s artistic director Richard Tognetti, film and staging director Nigel Jamieson, cinematographer and editor Jon Frank. Of course, a cast of several assisted this creative trinity, but the actual composite whole boiled down to a sequence of film sequences for the eyes and a collation of musics for the ears.

I’ve seen one of these collaborations before, when Tognetti went into partnership with photographer Bill Henson for Luminous in 2005. I think the surf/water one came my way at some time but nothing remains in the memory about that; Mountain, from about five years ago, remains a personal terra incognita, if not quite nullius. You can find little to take exception to in The Crowd & I; visually, it’s occasionally gripping and at other times tedious; with its musical stratum, the success rate is just about the same. So, much of the presentation fell outside my competence level, and the ACO’s contribution was hard to assess as the body seemed to be amplified for part of the night and the corps had mixed success with some works; not so much with the notes’ production but in how they sounded.

Along with the organization’s 16 strings (one down on the usual number, I think), we heard a flute/piccolo, a clarinet/bass clarinet, a bassoon/contrabassoon, a trumpet, a trombone/bass trombone, two percussionists and pianist Konstantin Shamray. Supplying vocal sounds came six members of Sydney’s Song Company. I think that summary includes all on-stage performers but can’t be sure: for much of the night, the musicians were working in darkness, a black-as-pitch pit situation with some strange groupings being carried out. Further to this, certain moments had you wondering whether you should just give up and watch the films rather than trying to make logical sense out of what you were hearing. For instance, during Ives’ The Unanswered Question, I could have sworn I saw an extra (anonymous) flute taking part in the woodwind ejaculations. The night began with the first movement to Schubert’s B minor Symphony in a Tognetti arrangement where the 15 original winds were cut to five, the result being that both oboe and horn textures were sadly missed by those of us who are asinine enough to revere this splendid fragment.

But some readings succeeded well enough, like the Slow Waltz section of Morton Feldman’s Three Voices that accompanied images of refugee camps and their dispiriting mixture of desolation and overcrowding. A Shostakovich polka supported shots of football crowds in all their natural repulsive mindlessness. The sickening images of the Cronulla riots in 2005 made a fine melding with Tognetti’s own rabid Mosh Maggot, which title is an apt descriptor for each one of those who initiated (from a gutless distance) or took part in this national celebration. Also, the final sequence of a Japanese fast train speeding through a seemingly endless, self-perpetuating cityscape while Chopin’s Op. 27 C sharp minor Nocturne forged along its troubled, unhappy path made for a conclusion to the evening that transcended much of the program’s main body, colourful though this was in many parts.

In the end, you’re left with an old-fashioned entertainment which, in fact, has no pretensions to grandeur or wide range of thought; more, it’s a look at the multitude and the individual in different contexts: the crowd or I. As expected, the visual component(s) stole most of the thunder and it often required a wrench to give proper focus to what Tognetti and his cohorts were about. I never thought that I’d be distracted from the Molto adagio of Beethoven’s Op. 132 but Michael Wolf’s images of individual faces among a crushed host of Japanese commuters were among the most arresting sequences in this night’s work; as were the succeeding prospects of Hong Kong housing that resembled computer strips straight out of the Matrix films.

It’s clear (to me, at least) that Tognetti, Jamieson and Frank are content to face you with their combined vision and leave open whatever you choose to make of it. (Well, there’s nothing original in that observation: most of today’s arts avoid audience direction.) Certainly, there are crowds galore, some of them obviously Australian (not just the Cronulla sub-normals), some of them close to being in extremis like the refugees coming to land on Samos or Lesbos, others a mass of individual colours that somehow cancel out individuality as in the millions that gather on the banks of the Ganges. Juxtaposed or interspersed with these come single units, like an elder walking into the landscape of the Tanami while the camera pans back until his figure is just a fleck in the spinifex; or like the football fan captured by Dragan Aleksic whose creased face reflects his team’s fortunes from minute to minute but might just as well be witnessing yet another mind-numbing spectacle in today’s Ukraine.

Look, for me, Augustus’ pet put it best: Odi profanum volgus et arceo. It’s clearly a sign of social decrepitude but these days I can’t imagine anything worse than sitting in a packed football stadium – and this from somebody who stood from 8:30 am to the final whistle at the 1970 Collingwood-Carlton grand final and who, at the same ground, watched with muted involvement as South Melbourne won their 2005 premiership cup. Despite the much-vaunted bonhomie of sports crowds, any generosity of spirit, tolerance and fellowship can disappear in a split second with an unintentional jostle, just as it can in a bar. What this night made me consider was the essential – for better or worse – isolation that pervades our society.

In the filmed imagery, you saw little sign of benevolence. No, it wasn’t all horror stories but the final message was a contradiction of the dean’s dictum: every man is an island, entire of itself. You may live in one of those Hong Kong pigeon coops, as a tour leader in that city described her home to me, but, just because you are thrust daily into a variety of social complexes, what follows isn’t membership of a philanthropic multitude. For assured social connection, you might have your family; all too often, that’s it. As a counterweight to this gloom, our aboriginal peoples are determined to speak individually of belonging to a ‘mob’; but I suppose that concept is vital if you are part of an all-too-easily dismissed minority.

But the majority of us have no such right of relationship. Friends? Sure, but, as you age, they become ships that disappear into the night. A multiplicity of associations give you a semblance of being part of the main, but all such clannish continents are built on sand; ask any politician. For my part, The Crowd & I impressed as a 15-part kaleidoscope of sombre sadness, bordering on depression; the world’s peoples are varied but rarely are you attracted to join in, even when faced with bland celebrations of the spectacularly little, like Ekka or Moomba. But I admired the probity of the ACO’s construct which persevered in its unflattering vision of humanity as, in line with the Schubert overture piece, unfinished.

You’d like to be optimistic about our future, as proposed in the night’s opening shot of the earth as a vital, beautiful object in space, before the camera zooms in on the globe’s details. As it was presented, our world is – from a distance – a breathtaking objet trouve. But then comes the rot: while you may hope for the dearest freshness deep down things, you rarely find it. Strangely enough, on this night, while recognizing several truncations and arrangements, a sort of buoyancy of spirit emerged, even out of the program’s more tenebrous music, bearing witness to Tognetti’s (assisted?) catholicity of vision.