The flute in our time

FLUTE PERSPECTIVES VOLUME 3

Derek Jones & Jerry Wong/Leigh Harrold

Move Records MD 3463

Another long-range view of Australian composition: that chamber music corner reserved for solo flute and flute-plus-piano works. This time, Jones keeps his oldest till last: Miriam Hyde‘s Flute Sonata of 1962. Jump forward 32 years for Johanna Selleck‘s Deja Vu, written for the composer herself as part of her master’s degree at the Victorian College of the Arts. From three years ago come Tom Henry‘s Sonata for flute and piano, written in memory of his music-loving father, which starts the disc; and a Sonatine for flute and piano by Linda Verrier, a Canadian-born writer recently settled in Australia and who has dedicated this score to Jones. Most recent in this collection, Rohan PhillipsInvention (V) was composed last year, another piece specifically for Jones (so far).

Each sonata has three movements, Henry’s being the most temporally substantial work at a little over 18 minutes, Hyde’s coming in 6 minutes shorter. All the piano parts are performed by Wong, except for the Verrier Sonatine where Harrold partners Jones. The other three works are single-movement units, both Selleck and Phillips speaking and communicating with assurance and a compression of structure and material that impress, not least for their individuality of utterance.

Hyde wrote her sonata just at the time when a group of young guns were bringing us all to a consciousness that Bartok was not the last word in modernity. Richard Meale had produced his confrontational Sonata for flute and piano in 1960; Sculthorpe, his Sonata for Viola and Percussion in the same year; Butterley’s Laudes appeared a year after Hyde’s work which was contemporaneous with George Dreyfus’ From within, looking out. Of course, a good deal of musical activity was continuing blithely along Hydean lines, but the creative situation had shifted pretty suddenly from its former, settled underpinnings.

Even Hyde’s movement titles come from a bygone era: Allegro giocoso, Andante pastorale, Allegro con spirito – all reflect an age that predates the British country/folk-song eruption of the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Still, as this work demonstrates, she had a mastery of style and vocabulary that persisted throughout her career, this work coming from the long middle years of it. Although the Sonata is sited in G minor, no matter how hard she exerts herself, in her opening Allegro Hyde can’t stay away from the relative major and the only severe traces of minor come in a march-like repeated chord pattern that occurs in the exposition and the orthodox recapitulation. Things proceed in unexceptionable style with some lightly perky work for Jones and a pulse that doesn’t vary but seems to stick to the initial 2/4 throughout.

The second movement sounds rather heavy for a pastoral, Wong delivering his repeated quaver chords with fidelity if not much variety of attack. But the piece is a fairly simple, polished lyric where you can see clearly what use Hyde makes of her building blocks, be it a minor second dip, a descending pattern of two triplets, or a semiquaver-quaver-semiquaver. Much the same transparency applies to the rondo finale which ends, apart from a final flourish, with a reference to one of the preceding episodes. Yet again, the piece is in G minor but the dark shadings are applied with a light touch and this jig with its defining held quaver across the centre of a 6/8 bar is deftly utilised in a set of pages that flash several welcome sparks in a finely controlled, coherent realization from both musicians.

Henry’s sonata opens with a keening, regularly-paced flute solo notable for some ‘bent’ notes and a few contributions from Wong operating inside the piano for some of the time before both instruments settle into a kind of threnody. The composer calls this movement The elements; nothing to do with the periodic table or ballets by Delalande or Fery, but more a setting-out of the work’s material which at first presentation sounds like an orthodox step-by-step melody, moving into some rapid trills in both instruments. The ambience becomes more frenetic as the pace increases and the flute’s range moves into more expanded and angular territory, mirrored by the keyboard. Henry uses a language that is half-traditional in harmonic terms but has its dissonant moments. The excitement fades and the initial patterns – well, a few of them – re-emerge before a quiet, unresolved ending.

If anything, the second movement sounds more orthodox at its opening before moving to slightly more challenging ground and thicker part-writing. There is a sort of catch-and-release about these pages where disjunct leaps across the flute’s register and a dense keyboard part give way to more transparent writing. Weighty repeated chords and a declamatory outburst from the piano in an Ivesian Pelion-upon-Ossa climax ends this depiction of Inner worlds.

A genial trill-laden introduction sets up anticipation for the lead into a concluding 6/8 Presto in which Henry again oscillates between several languages melded into a satisfying entity. I wouldn’t call the melodic material memorable but then I find echoes of many another flute/piano duet in these pages – everything from Prokofiev through Poulenc to Ibert and even (probably unconscious) echoes of Hyde. Nonetheless, the movement in this fast section presented as segmented, the episodes overtly linked by recalls of the opening bars to the Presto but not quite cohesive enough; in two places, I thought that the forward impetus had halted for no good reason. But the sonata as a whole is an excellent showcase for flute, Jones showing few signs of stress despite some testing passages.

Low piano notes and a rising four note pattern dominate the first pages of Verrier’s Sonatine. The flute floats above this with an angular lyric before a partnership is established and the piece is underway and the cells expand and coalesce. Mind you, appearances are deceptive and, although you feel hat you have a handle on the various motives and themes, you haven’t: Verrier is a dab hand at transformation and suddenly interpolating new patterns and intervallic twists as she attempts a depiction of bird sounds.

A pause precedes a slower section that sounds like an old-fashioned Andantino, which doesn’t last long before the flute’s energy level rises in a virtuosic semiquaver flight, succeeded by a piano solo and a return to more calm territory that, as in Henry’s sonata, occupies an all-man’s-land, although Verrier is quite happy to wear her diatonic colours more often. She leads us to a calmly optimistic conclusion, notable for a sustained richly vibrato-ed single note from the flute while the piano growls in the depths. It’s a most interesting construct with several striking sections alongside others that sound like sheer hard work for Jones and Harrold.

In Selleck’s solo, we come across a flautist writing for herself with a highly informed knowledge of the instrument’s possibilities – and it shows. This is the most pointedly characteristic music on this album as the composer goes through a battery of techniques that are not heard in the other tracks here. Not just flutter-tonguing or percussive attacks, but we hear that extraordinary effect produced by forcing a repeated note out of its comfort zone in the first bar, as well as the flute’s ability to vault across its register with glancing acciaccature preceding a broad sustained note an octave or more away. Jones gives fine voice/air to Selleck’s use of fat minims that hang like ripe plums in medias res, only to be succeeded by rapid flurries that recur in this piece that exemplifies the lived experience of half-remembrances, or memories that only partly remain intact. At its best moments, Deja vu is riveting, explosive in the best sense: an energy-filled successor to some of the superlative flute solos that have peppered contemporary compositional activity since 1936’s Density 21.5.

To my ears, the most ‘advanced’ work on this CD is that by Rohan Phillips, Invention (V), subtitled Still Life and taking its impetus from a brief poem of that name by Antigone Kefala. A study in treble sonorities, Wong’s piano part is written on one stave and only once drops below the flute’s range. Unlike Selleck’s piece, this work is pretty chaste in its technical demands, its temper benign even if the two lines slash across each other at certain points. But the composer’s language is uncompromising, rising to stridency as he gives sound to the poet’s images of light on water and trees in their own symmetry. The score is almost continually flashing with brilliance, the effect eventually that of an impossibly note-rich carillon.

A fine addition to Jones’ series of CDs devoted to Australian flute music, much of them new and a good many tracks comprising older works that ought to be preserved or revived. Jones acknowledges the support given to him in this enterprise by the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, in the new Southbank building of which he recorded this third volume.

Masterwork with Oz seasoning

A WINTER’S JOURNEY

Allan Clayton & Kate Golla

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday July 14, 2022

Allan Clatyton

This latest Musica Viva touring program could have been more than unappealing. Well, it proved to be so for many patrons who stayed away in droves. Or did they? Hard to tell in Brisbane’s Concert Hall, which is much more capacious than the organization’s usual haunt in the Griffith University Conservatorium of Music. Did somebody in administration think that the northern capital’s music-lovers would come out in numbers to enjoy Schubert’s gloomy song-cycle? Was there a book running on the popular appeal of a young English tenor? Or did some off-site official bank on public curiosity about a wedding between German Romanticism and the paintings of Fred Williams?

As far as I can tell, Brisbane is the only city that has been upgraded in potential capacity this way; every other Winterreise is being performed in the usual spaces. Moving from a hall with a maximum capacity of 750 to one that holds 1600 is one of the more striking instances I know of great expectations. I didn’t attempt to count on Thursday evening – bad-mannered and depressing at the same time – but the place would have been about a third full. I couldn’t see any patrons in the upper reaches of the Concert Hall and in the stalls we were well spread out; even then, with not much occupation at the fringes.

Possibly it’s one thing to mount Winterreise in Melbourne where self-consciousness is unremarkable; or in Sydney, a town where awareness of self is strangely attractive in a city so inured to promotion of personality from the womb on; or in Adelaide and Perth in whose cultural reaches individual self-love is abnegated in favour of Church and State respectively. Brisbane, as they say, is different: a smaller pool for clientele, a chamber music audience that is dutiful but elderly, a set of patrons who take more pleasure in short bursts than in sustained essays (we were warned in a pre-recital voice-over that the 24 songs should not be interrupted by applause, just in case any of us went ape over Der Lindenbaum or Fruhlingstraum).

Whatever the local peculiarities are, we heard a fine performance from Clayton and his almost-faultless accompanist Golla. While the tenor prowled the stage and Golla sat and played, stately at the pianoforte, paintings by Fred Williams were projected on screens behind the performers, presumably to give an Australian wanderer’s perspective on trolling through the countryside, albeit reflecting a happier, more positive personality than that of Muller’s rejected lover, as well as a series of landscapes some centuries and 10,000 miles away from the imaginary originals. I think most of us would be receptive of Williams’ visions of this country, even without Patrick McCaughey telling us what and how to think about them. But marrying them with the cycle’s aesthetic content proved challenging, not least because Muller’s poems are often very physically suggestive, reliant on solid objects in the world as well as on mood and psychological deviation.

Lindy Hume directed the 70-minute-long spectacle; not able to do much with Golla, she put Clayton to work by using the stage’s width and sending him roaming around the backdrop screens. But she didn’t descend to nonsensical mimicry as was carried out by Simon Keenlyside when he participated in a staged Winterreise for the 2004 Melbourne International Arts Festival where one of the low points was having the baritone pose as a lime tree. Mind you, at one point Clayton came close, settling in for a sleep under the piano (possibly during Das Wirtshaus, although that’s unlikely as the poet finds no rest there; more likely it was Rast). But the emphasis was mainly on the tenor’s vocal powers of suggestion, rather than physical flourishes. Still, one in particular impressed when Clayton simulated quickly pulling a curtain across the backdrop as a placid Williams painting changed into a wild vertical expressionist panel-triptych, perhaps for Der sturmische Morgen.

Sorry for the overuse of ‘probably’, ‘possibly’, etc., but my memory is becoming unreliable as the decades creep past. In normal conditions, you can see enough in a venue to scratch out some notes for later reference; when the lights go out for a visual presentation like this one, you’ve got little-to-no hope of recording anything. Nor are you helped when the relevant program-booklet pages are black with white print – which is illegible anyway under these conditions. So you’re left to fall back on memory alone which, even at one day’s distance, is chancy. Nonetheless, video designer David Bergman kept his background projection movements quiet in general, paintings melding into each other with considerable skill; to my shame, I recognized only three of them and one was the early Balwyn landscape of 1946, although many of the other 18 (from across the following 30 years) were familiar in style, if not content.

So I’ve got few comments on individual songs. Clayton and Golla made a firm opening with a steady Gute Nacht that took a few tempo liberties, maintaining its pulse and balancing between a trudge and a march. At this early stage, you could appreciate the tenor’s clean production and the pianist’s unobtrusive determination that didn’t labour the details. Even more impressive, Die Post proved to be memorable for Clayton’s communication of self-exasperation; something I’ve not seen before as most singers head for jaunty exhilaration, even though the stanza-concluding Mein Herz?/! is best read as impatience at approaching and inevitable disappointment – as in this Clayton vision.

During the familiar Der Lindenbaum, we witnessed some instances of this singer’s unexpected moves, including an almost-not-there soft volume at Hier findest du deine Ruh’!, as well as an avoidance of bluster in the cold wind stanza’s modulation. Across the 24 lieder, Clayton showed an impressive control in the larger-framed works like the urgent Ruckblick, the subterranean menace that permeates Im Dorfe, and the hope-destructive repeated notes that eventually consume all in Der Wegweiser.

I get impatient with writers who manage to find some sort of uplift in Der Leiermann, the cycle’s concluding song. No matter which way you turn, neither poet nor composer offers redemption or a light breaking through: it’s despair contemplating itself in the bleakest of landscapes. And that’s exactly what I took from Clayton and Golla’s reading where their voice/piano alternation made a powerful conclusion to this atmospherically consistent interpretation. It obviously impressed this audience which greeted the fade-to-black with an initial tentativeness that swelled rapidly into infectious enthusiasm.

Finally, the conceptual elephant: what, if anything, do the paintings contribute? Eye candy is the kindest I can think of: they don’t challenge much, and even those that branch away from the trademark straight tree-trunks like the two Sherbrooke forest works from 1961 or dabs of scrub in the You Yangs landscape still border on the figurative, like one of the two Mount Kosciusko studies. Whatever conceptualizing lay behind super-imposing these backdrops, there was no intention of illustrating or visually complementing the lieder; rather, the intention appears to have been to present us with a familiar environment in which to site the cycle. For me, this didn’t work, music and paintings occupying utterly different strata and never the twain did meet – well, very rarely.

An additional chauvinism-reinforcing observance came in the form of 24 poems (of sorts) by Judith Nangala Crispin, Musica Viva Australia’s Artist in Residence, printed in the program booklet. These stanzas depict Williams wandering around the Kosciuszko (take your pick) landscape pursuing a white emu, presumably to paint rather than to eat. You assume that the questing, determined artist stands in for Muller’s pseudo-Werther, while the animal represents the jilting lover. Imagery and landscape details are piled on thick to give us a new Winterreise, one that has nothing in common with the original. But I assume that was the whole point: to escape the European cliche/trope and depict your typical Australian artist, ploughing through the mulga in search of a bunyip substitute. It’s all an interesting adjunct but such a juxtaposition across time and space stretches my limited imagination to breaking point.

You could, easily enough, shut your eyes and just listen to the Clayton/Golla Experience – which I did for a time, starting at Der greise Kopf. And thereby relished – undistracted – the duo’s stellar combination of restraint and vehemence. For my part, the score itself works against any ethnic transubstantiations or contemporary parallel-drawing. It’s a puzzlement: go along and see/hear for yourself.

July 2022 Diary

Is it safe to bring back The Diary? Let’s hope that Monkeypox doesn’t have the virulent power of COVID-19, so that the teetering semblance of normality that is currently prevailing continues, or even strengthens.

Friday July 1 at 7:30 pm

FESTIVAL OPENING

Claire Edwardes, Alex Raineri

Salvation Army Brisbane City Temple, 167 Ann St.

To start his annual Brisbane Music Festival with some sonic oomph, director/pianist Alex Raineri is pairing up with percussionist Edwardes. If they each had a double, we might have enjoyed the Bartok Sonata; as it is, the bag on offer looks very mixed with only one composer’s name familiar to me (Alex Turley), one other possibly half-recalled (Matthew Shlomowitz), and the other four complete strangers. ‘Macens’, I presume, is Ella Macens, a 30-year-old Sydney writer of Latvian extraction; Peggy Polias is another Sydney artist moving into the central years of her creative life with a solid academic pedigree. Also with a Sydney background is Cyrus Meurant, many of whose works appear to be written for theatre or dance, and so would not have hit my field of operations. Turley from Western Australia lived for some time in Melbourne as well as Sydney. So, all Australians, including expatriate Turley, originally from Adelaide. Odd one out is Nicole Lizee, a Canadian composer of eclectic output – by which I mean that her influences are wide-ranging and ‘modern’, although what that entails when used in reference to a former indie rock band member is probably best left unexplored. Or. if you want to leave it all in the laps of the gods, join Edwardes and Raineri in their exposition of this ‘kaleidoscopically colourful’ hour’s music-making.

Saturday July 2 at 3 pm

MOTIONS

Paul Dean, Alex Raineri

Salvation Army Brisbane City Temple, 167 Ann St.

I suppose the main feature for some of us at this afternoon recital will be the Brahms Sonata No. 2 in E flat for Dean’s clarinet and Raineri’s piano. They don’t come more canonic in that wind instrument’s repertoire than this, the second of two produced just before the composer’s death, and this could serve as a congenial filling-out of recent Brahms-through-Raineri experiences, thanks to the pianist’s recent Move recording of the Sonata No. 1 with clarinet Luke Carbon. Dean premieres his own Miniatures, presumably the pieces for clarinet and piano from 70 works written for other musicians in lockdown during 2020. Jorg Widmann’s Five Fragments won’t take long, being exactly what the composer promised. As well, more Australian content comes with Catherine Likhuta‘s 2010 composition for alto saxophone and piano that gives this recital its name; I’m assuming that Dean will play the clarinet arrangement that appears in the composer’s list of compositions.

Tuesday July 12 at 7:30 pm

RETURN TO THE STAGE

Australian Youth Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sir Mark Elder, venerable director of the Halle Orchestra, is visiting this colony once more, this time to take the AYO’s aspirational players through a 70-minute non-stop program of Berlioz and Strauss. I suppose the stage return referred to is that of the AYO itself; it probably doesn’t refer to Strauss, although his output usually shows that he was never off it. This evening, we hear An Alpine Symphony, which is one of the great landscape works in the Western repertoire, complete with offstage hunting horns, a storm, sunrise, sunset, cowbells, a waterfall, sheep bleats. On top of the massive orchestra, you get a wind machine and even the organ roars out in the tempest scene. And that’s what it is: a big tone poem packed with musical set-changes. Before this extravaganza, the AYO will play Berlioz’s Les francs-juges Overture: part of one of the composer’s first failures. Not that the opera was intrinsically bad; how can we tell when nobody got to hear it? But the composer destroyed his manuscript and revisions, only a few scraps remaining of which this overture is one; in musicological terms, his first surviving work for orchestra.

Wednesday July 13 at 7:30 pm

EAST MEETS WEST

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Local lad Dane Lam conducts this program where we are shown just how much European musical concepts have invaded the brave new world of Mao Zedong and his successors. Top of the list will be the Yellow River Piano Concerto, written by a panel of two/three at the command of Jiang Qing of happy memory, and displaying to all the world the aspirations of the nation. Soloist is Tony Lee who carried all before him at the Sydney International Piano Competition of 2016. A more sensitive type of chauvinism comes in the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, written by two students in 1959 and performed here by Anna Da Silva Chen. Other details are not available but you are promised sopranos Victoria Lambourn and Sharon Zhai, with guzheng young artist Angie Liu coming up from Sydney to infuse a touch of exoticism through her instrument of fixed and moveable bridges . I’m assuming the singers will present some standard West Meets East repertoire – perhaps a touch of Liu and/or Turandot?

Thursday July 14 at 12 pm

QUIRKY

Real and Diverse Theatre/Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Cremorne Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Here is an offshoot of our recent pandemic, the RAD Theatre people showing us how our daily life regularities altered; whether for good or ill, or both, I guess we’ll find out. The ensemble is at pains to state that their piece is not about COVID but rather how cast members reacted to and coped with the new order. As for the music, that has been written by Nicole Murphy, a name that doesn’t ring any bells but whose career has been packed with activity, both here and in the United States (of America). Nothing is explicit about the QSO’s role in all this, but you’d have to guess that the forces are chamber-size when the promotional spiel speaks of ‘musicians from [the] Queensland Symphony Orchestra’.

The performance will be repeated on Friday July 15 at 7:30 pm and on Saturday July 16 at 2 pm.

Thursday July 14 at 7 pm

A WINTER’S JOURNEY

Allan Clayton, Kate Golla

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

In this year’s Musica Viva season, Schubert’s mighty, depressing song cycle will be performed by English tenor Clayton and Sydney-born, London-based Golla. It should be a musical discovery for most of us in Brisbane because I don’t think Clayton has worked here before, and Golla moved to the UK pretty soon after finishing a stint as repetiteur and coach with Opera Australia. To add to the stimulation, Lindy Hume is directing this performance, with videographer Dave Bergman projecting large-scale backdrops of Fred Williams paintings – 24 of them, just like the cycle’s number of songs! I wish everybody well, of course, but the last time I witnessed a staged Winterreise was at the Melbourne International Festival of 2004 when English baritone Simon Keenlyside sang and danced the music – sort of. I thought much of that exercise was ludicrous miming; other members on the panel of the newspaper I was writing for considered it worthy of an award as Performance of the Festival. I remain(ed) unconvinced and, proving that I was in the right, most of them are dead now (however, not Keenlyside).

Wednesday July 20 at 7:30 am

LA LUNE BLANCHE

Ensemble Q

City Workshop, 139 Charlotte St.

A real knock-’em-down chamber music recital from this group which boasts a variety of instruments at its disposal. At the core comes a string quartet: violins Natsuko Yoshimoto and Anne Horton, viola Imants Larsens, cello Trish Dean. Two other performers will feature in proceedings: Q guru Paul Dean on clarinet and soprano Eva Kong. And what do you get? There’s some Mozart, a touch of Faure, a little scrap of Borodin, and various whispers from Webern. As far as Kong is concerned, Reynaldo Hahn is mentioned as a contributor to the program, so you’d anticipate a song or six; not much else is feasible as all the chamber music by Hahn that I can find involves piano. The Borodin would have to be that string quartet, wouldn’t it? As for Mozart, it could be anything, especially if you take into account ad hoc arrangements. A Faure song – like La lune blanche – would be welcome. But the Webern? The Five Movements? The Six Bagatelles? The String Quartet? The String Trio? Then there’s the white moon suggestion in this music-of-the-night celebration, or does that just apply to one song? Whatever, you’re encouraged to bring champagne – which, at my age, is the ultimate debilitating narcotic as far as listening to nocturnal music goes.

Sunday July 24 at 11:30 am

FANTASY AND FOLKLORE

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

This is one for the kids, the recommended audience age being 6+ (good luck with keeping them enthralled for 80 minutes). Umberto Clerici, having completed his sea-change from cellist to conductor, will take his young auditors through a miscellany, starting with Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, presumably in the Rimsky whizz-bang orchestration and without Walt Disney’s Fantasia film interpretation. A Tchaikovsky valse from The Sleeping Beauty ballet suite, a few of Ravel’s Mother Goose miniatures, the first movement to Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto with Huw Jones the soloist, that most equine of warhorses in Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (without the girls), Dvorak’s The Noon Witch tone poem (has anybody heard that in live performance? I haven’t) – most of these fall under the concert’s titular umbrella, apart from the concerto which might suggest The Shire to some of us. Speaking of films, the orchestra plays John Williams’ The Flight to Neverland from Hook, which summons up adventure and fantasy as efficiently as any other of the American’s more forgettable scores. And an indirect reference to our world today emerges with Catherine Likhuta‘s Rituals of Heartland which is based on musical motifs from the composer’s native Ukraine. This work was written for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Cybec 21st Century Composers program of February 2018, well before the abomination that struck Likhuta’s birth country, that pointless disaster emanating from Ukraine’s large neighbour, whose leader should be – like Arthur Miller’s Abigail – cut out of the world.

Friday July 29 at 11:30 am

TRIUMPHANT TCHAIKOVSKY

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Yes, it is Tchaikovsky at his most affirmative as the QSO takes on the Symphony No. 4 in F minor in this program’s second half. Leading the players through this weltering masterpiece is conductor Giordano Bellincampi, an Italian-Danish musician who is currently music director of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra; I’m unsure whether he has worked before in this country. He also will exercise his talents on the overture to Verdi’s Nabucco and the Intermezzo that opens Act 3 of Manon Lescaut by Puccini. The concert’s soloist is tenor Kang Wang, well-known in Queensland as he has sung many times with the QSO, as well as appearing with Opera Queensland. He gets to thrill the audience with more Puccini in Nessun dorma and Che gelida manina. As well as these over-familiar favourites, we hear two Verdi rarities: Adorno’s enraged O inferno/Sento avvampar nell’anima from Simon Boccanegra; and Quando le sere e placido, Rodolfo’s Act 2 aria in Luisa Miller – both examples of characters who have been emotionally diddled.

This program will be repeated on Saturday July 30 at 7:30 pm

Sunday July 31 at 3:30 pm

MAHLER & STRAUSS

Leanne Kenneally, Caitlin Weal, Alla Yarosh, Francis Atkins

St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Kangaroo Point

Sopranos Kenneally and Weal eventually team up with mezzo Yarosh for the final trio from Der Rosenkavalier in this lush late-Romantic program, pianist Atkins having to provide a substitute for that lush orchestral fabric that eventually overwhelms the opera’s three main female singers as all those 6/4 chords have to be resolved. More importantly, someone is singing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder; probably the mezzo, because the vocal line suits that register. And we are promised some very familiar Strauss songs, including Allerseelen and that superbly robust-yet-hushed Standchen. Kenneally is a well-known quantity; the other two singers are hopefully (as we say ad nauseam in sports interviews) on their paths to satisfying careers.

Mix and (possibly) match

AUSTRALIAN MONODY

The Marais Project

Move Records 633

Here is something of a miscellany, the CD’s title overtly relevant to a few tracks, secondarily related to other music by a liberal interpretation, the whole box and dice the product of Australian musicians, even if the monody angle is out of kilter with quite a few elements on offer. Marais Project founder Jenny Eriksson‘s viola da gamba is heard in all but one of the fifteen tracks, four times in partnership with fellow gamba Catherine Upex; multi-tasker Susie Bishop sings solo or contributes to five pieces with her soprano and violin, plays violin only in two, and sings only in two others; Marais regular Tommie Andersson plays in everything – theorbo in eleven pieces, guitar in three others, and touches his lute in another; organist Anthony Abouhamad reinforces two Purcell works on a continuo organ; and countertenor Russell Harcourt participates in six pieces with his remarkably clear, high-flying vocal timbre.

Further to the CD’s title. As far as national content is concerned, the Marais group jumps across the centuries. From our ancient white music, we hear Isaac Nathan’s The Aboriginal Mother and The Aboriginal Father from the composer’s Australian Melodies collection of 1841-1863. Vault forward a touch and you come to Carl Vine’s Love me sweet, written for The Battlers TV series in 1994. In composing mode, Bishop wrote her Lullaby for a Broken World during the 2020 Sydney COVID lockdown. Alice Chance’s 2018 Precious Colours was revised for the Marais ensemble last year, which also saw the arrival of Gordon Kerry’s Christchurch Monody, a response to the 2019 attack on two mosques in that city.

As for non-Australian monodies, we have a Dowland ayre – Now, O now, I needs must part – from the composer’s First Booke of 1597; those two Purcells – the Elegy on the Death of Queen Mary of 1695, O dive custos, and An Evening Hymn, first published in 1688; as well, a blast from the near-present in Michael Nyman’s If, composed for use in the 1995 Japanese animated film, The Diary of Anne Frank.

And breaking the British-Australian cultural dominance is a Marais gamba suite, that in A minor from Book V, published in 1725; after performing which, Eriksson immediately restores the status quo with her own very recently contrived La Petite Tarantelle, living up to its name by being the second-shortest track on Australian Monody.

Three of these tracks – the lullaby, Kerry’s monody, the tarantella – are world premiere recordings.

One of the treasures of this collection is the ayre which features both singers, the three Marais strings (violin in stanza 2 only?), and Andersson on lute with a solo of his own in medias res based on Dowland’s Frog Galliard. Bishop sings the first stanza, Harcourt the second and the similarity in vocal shadings is extraordinary, even more so when both combine for the final Deare, if I doe not returne where they sing the two upper parts of the composer’s four-part setting. This exercise is carried off with a warm clarity from all contributors, an ensemble effort to match the best that I’ve heard – a pity that I can’t compare it with Gordon Sumner’s Dowland excursions, but he didn’t record this work (thanks be to God). While the singers are phrase-length near-perfect, the gambas and violin are discretion personified, everybody occasionally inserting a communal, brief hiatus point.

Abouhamad’s flutey continuo organ fits well with Eriksson’s gamba and Andersson on theorbo to support Harcourt in the Purcell hymn, another throwaway gem from the greatest British composer. Not that Harcourt is piercingly true in pitch all the time but his slight deviations reinforce the touching humanity of Bishop Fuller’s words and their buoyant setting with Purcell’s unforgettable chain of Hallelujah exclamations across the piece’s last 45 bars – a reverent praise-chant that leaves Handel’s bombast well in its wake. The near-contemporary elegy, a vocal duet for two upper-range voices (or so it appears from the only edition I could find), is carefully accomplished by Bishop and Harcourt, once more almost indistinguishable in timbre, with the same support as in the hymn. You might have asked for more sustained power at the start with one or two breathing spots interrupting otherwise seamless lines. While you could delight in the vocal interweaving of the opening quatrain, the duet showed at its most persuasive from the Seu te fluentem change in metre at bar 33, handling with impressive ease the chromatic dips starting at bar 99’s o flete leading to a sombre conclusion. Not what you’d call a monody, then, but welcome for its own sake in this miscellany.

It wouldn’t be a Marais Project disc without a gamba suite by the ensemble’s inspiration. Eriksson has recorded several of these for Move, including the G minor suite from Livre V twice; well, it appears on two different Move CDs. This A minor work has four movements in this presentation: Prelude le Soligni, Allemande la Facile, Sarabande and Menuet. While forging a calm, undemonstrative path through these constituents, Eriksson has Andersson’s theorbo providing an underpinning continuo force. The compositions are constitutionally lean: 24, 16, 28 and 32 (Menuet plus Double) bars in length; in other words, completed quickly, despite the repeats – even the Sarabande. The reading is tasteful and tactful, carefully shaped in phrasing and dynamic gradations and without a trace of aggression or harshness.

Perhaps I’m among a very few but I can’t get excited about the two Nathan songs; possibly more sympathy might be roused by greater research, but I don’t think so. The CD’s booklet makes some fanciful observations about the cultural worth of the colonial Australian composer’s insight into Aboriginal culture and his appropriation of First Nation songs, but the actual products have demonstrated yet again the craft of shaping original indigenous melodies into lieder fit for any Victorian salon. An only man standing in Sydney’s early days, Nathan isn’t our Ives; nor is expatriate Grainger, nor Alfred Hill. In fact, none of them addresses us in a vocabulary that we would seriously call our own.

This brace of songs comes across as amiable enough, well matched to Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s soppy verses. For the three stanzas of The Aboriginal Father, Bishop participates in the prelude, postlude and interludes with her violin, along with Andersson on a 9-string guitar and Eriksson’s gamba; of course, breaking from her instrumental participation to sing Nathan’s four-square Europeanized melody.

A bleaker scenario is proposed in The Aboriginal Mother although it’s hard to imagine many indigenous hearts identifying with its elevated, studied language, let alone the 4-square tune that might easily have been written by the singer’s namesake, Henry. Here, she is escorted by Andersson’s guitar alone. Both monodies are performed with clarity and poise. but their curiosity standing is the only remarkable feature about them; they could have come from 19th century Leipzig or Dublin as easily as Sydney.

From Nathan’s songs on, the remainder of this disc consists of monody, with one final exception. I’ve always had high respect for Vine as an all-round musician: as composer, with his early ballets and the first four symphonies; as well, his brilliant pianism. This little song, performed here by the ensemble minus Abouhamad, is the gentlest of lyrics with a mildly rocking instrumental support. At one point, I could have sworn that Harcourt was being doubled by Bishop’s soprano, but that was probably wishful thinking. In any case, it makes for an easy-listening final track.

Nyman’s song is set in one key, like Vine’s, and is sung by Harcourt who is unpressured and under-exercised. The song, in both stanzas and choruses, follows a simple downward motion for the singer while Bishop, Eriksson and Andersson’s theorbo follow a rudimentary supporting role. Roger Pulvers’ wish-rich text brings to mind the naivete of the famous diary and Nyman gives it a setting that suits the requisite emotional ambience.

Gordon Kerry is another Australian composer whose work has often delighted me; on occasion, impressing as much as any contemporary writer I’ve come across, e.g. his 1993 opera Medea and the String Quintet of 2012. His meditation on the Christchurch massacre sets two Old Testament texts: one is two verses from Ecclesiastes, known to many by its observation that the race is not to the swift; the other, featuring that striking simile of the righteous who shall run to and fro like sparks among the stubble, involves verses from Book 3 of the Book of Wisdom. This piece, commissioned by the Project, is performed by Bishop vocal and instrumental, both gambas, and Andersson’s theorbo.

Kerry’s composition is an exemplification of my idea of monody, particularly the first part where the voice and two strings intertwine with the same motif. The work’s first part is lean in texture, even when the other instruments enter, the whole reflecting those anguished and doom-laden verses. If there is any redemption to be found in our memories of the senseless, terrifying slaughter in New Zealand, Kerry epitomizes it in his monody’s second part where the souls of the mosques’ dead worshippers are commended to God. Here, the harmony moves to the major and the instrumental contribution changes to rustlings of warmth as Bishop’s violin and soprano alternate in an uplifting tribute to the fallen. Like certain other tracks on the CD, this music moves through its emotional sparseness and simple musical material.

Precious Colours is a Project-tailored revision of an earlier Alice Chance work, Pallah Pallah, which recounts an Aboriginal legend about a butterfly caught in the snow; when it melts, the insect’s colours run to generate the opal. The text is a dialogue between the butterfly and her husband, both lamenting the transformation. There is no cleverness here; the song is a duet for Harcourt and Bishop, who also contributes an intervallic violin, with both gambas and theorbo reinforcing what seems to be a cantus-firmus. The initial melody is pentatonic/mono-harmonic (D minor?) and is employed by both voices, who actually combine vertically at only one point. As the first track on the CD, it sets the monodic expectations at very little, if not naught, but it also establishes an intimation of the European interpretation of Aboriginal music that flowers more fully in the Nathan songs.

More adventurous by a smidgen in its harmonic vocabulary, Bishop’s Lullaby represents the kind of thing that the composer thinks we could sing to our children in a world broken by COVID, climate change and the horror of being confronted by our previous Federal government’s ministers. A gentle piece, Bishop treats it as a soothing entity, at odds with the threats to those young ones being lullabied. Eriksson’s gamba and Andersson’s guitar combine with the singer’s violin, the singer/violinist able to carry out both functions simultaneously when she hums/recapitulates her opening lines; a monodist with a difference, then.

Last in this chronological sequence comes Eriksson’s tarantella, a tribute to Marais as it’s an essay at a final suite movement in the master’s style. The gamba is still underpinned by the theorbo and it cuts a fine period rug with a metrical change from 6/8 to 3/4 near the end. Not sure how the maitre would have evaluated this bagatelle’s melodic material which struck me as lacking in quirkiness.

Take it all in all, here is a collection that, despite the drawing of various parallels and long bows, is far from described by its title. It may be unkind, but I don’t feel as if anyone concerned has been strained by their participation; mind you, that’s not a bad quality for musicians to enjoy. As well as this facility in music-making, several tracks strike me as exceptionally fine: both Purcells, the ayre, Eriksson’s Marais suite account, and the contributions from Vine and Kerry.

The more, the merrier

THE WEAPONS OF RHETORIC

Bach Akademie Australia

Verbrugghen Hall, Conservatorium of Music, New South Wales

Saturday June 11, 2022

The best moments of this Bach celebration came when the numbers performing were at their largest. Not that this is saying much because the Akademie doesn’t run to crowded stages, their emphasis being on a refinement of tone that can lead to tenuousness. But, of the six works or extracts programmed, those I enjoyed most were the ensemble’s version of the superb Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 and the night’s finale – the Concerto for Two Violins BWV 1043. Both were chamber-proportioned with one instrument for the orchestral violins and viola line in the Double Concerto, and one instrument per line in the Brandenburg.

Laura Vaughan opened the recital with Sonata No. 2 in D Major for Viola da gamba and Harpsichord, Neal Peres Da Costa playing the keyboard. The opening Adagio set off alarm bells with an enunciative error hitting the string line as early as bar 7, but the actual progress of the movement was uneasy as the viola’s output proved uneven, dipping in and out of audibility while the harpsichord stayed omni-present. In the pendant Allegro, Vaughan had her hands full ensuring the accuracy of line, but her delivery lacked dynamic differentiation; admittedly hard to achieve when you eschew vibrato and have your hands full of semiquavers. Still, these pages relied largely on the harpsichord for bite and shape.

Patches of the eloquent Andante succeeded, mainly those parts where the harpsichord is responding to figured bass directions only, but the continued unevenness of the viol disappointed, especially in closely integrated segments where lines overlap and link motivically. As for the final Allegro, Vaughan seemed yet again hard pressed to get her notes out, let alone do anything with them. For this reason, much of the movement’s high spirits failed to fire, and scintillations like the quick bumps in bars 100, 102, 104 and especially from bar 106 through to the exhilaration of bar 110 preluding the return home, all failed to carry and to have their full effect.

To take us through the Ricercar a 6 from The Musical Offering, Akademie founder Madeleine Easton and Julia Fredersdorff played violins, Karina Schmitz and John Ma violas, Anthea Cottee cello, and Kirsty McCahon double bass. There’s no definitive instrumentation for this part (or much else) of this score, so this all-strings version works as well as most, although throughout its length I was inevitably reminded of Webern’s orchestration – a bad situation because I kept on mentally replacing the Akademie’s string lines with the Austrian composer’s imagined timbres. It wasn’t as though the players didn’t fulfil their roles, but the playing was rhythmically mechanical and the prevailing dynamic remained bland and colourless, even in moving passages like the touching cadence in bar 39.

Surprises like the exposed bass line from bar 66 to bar 72 was given as a gruff, uninflected grumble, and the written out top-line mordents in bar 93 simply didn’t carry. At the end, the last five bars in Webern’s version radiate jubilation and achievement, albeit with a small orchestra’s resources; this sextet maintained their chugging approach and brought about an unexceptional end to this magnificent structure. Fair’s fair: everyone stuck to their period-authentic guns and laid bare the architecture, but is that enough? To me, the effect was that of an exercise, one carried out half-cocked.

Solo violas (da braccio) for the Brandenburg 6 were Schmitz and Ma; Vaughan and Jenny Eriksson played violas da gamba; Cottee enjoyed the prominent cello line; McCahon’s double bass stood in for the original violone and Da Costa gave ample support with his cembalo/harpsichord. I’ve heard other performances that were more accurate and polished, but not another that proved as enjoyable and refreshing as this one.

What struck you straightaway was the relish with which all performers threw themselves into the ritornelli; each time a pivotal refrain came round, the players smiled – with delight, I assume, at the splendidly rich and powerful noise they were producing, as well as revelling in a music that tests but leaves room for delight. The top viola notes were occasionally wavering off-pitch, but in gthe first movement these glitches were few and far between after about bar 40. And the continuo homophony with those insistent bass chords under the twinning top lines proved emphatically compelling.

In the central not-too-much Adagio, you became more aware of the swelling and diminishing phrases employed by the two viola soloists; nothing overdone or swooping but giving the weaving lines some shape, not leaving them to survive unadorned, without attention. Alongside this, the employment of differing dynamic levels shone through, assisted by the silence of the gambas, and taken full advantage of by Cottee who broke into independence at bar 35 where she was relieved from her regular six-crotchets-a-bar stolidity. In similar vein to the first movement, the concluding Allegro was a delight, pretty close to an unqualified one. Once more, the musicians showed obvious pleasure in their individual work and their collegial results in this spirit-lifting dance. I relished the give-and-take manners of the three solo lines from Schmitz, Ma and Cottee, and the polished oomph of the returning ritornelli did great service to the composer – and that’s the best you can hope to witness at any concert.

After interval, Easton worked through the first two movements of the G minor Violin Sonata, an Adagio and Fugue. On first hearing, the first of these impressed as strained, a sequence of hurdles. Second time around, the reading seemed more coherent in every sense except rhythmic; in that, Easton is not alone as interpreters galore take their own sweet time and liberties over the movement’s passagework with its semiquavers, demi-semiquavers, and hemi-demi-semiquavers. Only a few violinists I’ve heard adhere to the letter of the metrical law and negotiate these flights in strict time; for most, Bach’s score is a palimpsest only, so bar lengths can expand and contract at will. Still, the part-writing was observed properly and only two articulation errors emerged from the mesh.

The fugue, familiar to many of us from the organ Prelude and Fugue BWV 539, was a more rigorous test aa the linear interplay intensified, the first danger sign coming at bar 11 where a few of the triple-stop chords failed to resonate properly. Later, top notes started to waver or not register securely. But the experience was something of a mixed bag; the written-out arpeggio passage work from bar 42 to bar 50 succeeded well enough, with a bit of interpolated dynamic juxtaposition, such as organists make by switching between manuals when playing the same material twice. But then, a pivotal top note to a bar 52 chord failed to sound. Bars 61 to 62 revealed pitch problems; bars 74 to 75 were near-disastrous; and even the single-note passages were not exactly fault-free. Something of a struggle for Easton, and for us.

The ten Riddle Canons from The Musical Offering present logistical problems for any performers, I suppose. There’s no worry about the actual notes, which are not difficult to negotiate. But it’s an organizational question, deciding who comes into the mix and where. To a large extent, these exercises are paper music, not really audience-attracting; but then, after this night, at least you can say you’ve heard them. Rather than entrust them all to Da Costa (who scored Canon 9 as a solo), Easton and her advisers used a mixed quintet: herself and Fredersdorff on violins, an anonymous flautist, Cottee’s cello, and the harpsichord.

And on they went; five duos, a trio, three quartets, and the aforementioned keyboard solo. Easton prefaced groups of canons with a few explanatory comments, mainly telling us the pieces’ names, their peculiarities, and their functions as indirect praise of the whole work’s pseudo-commissioner, Frederick the Great. The actual outlining of each canon raised no problems; everyone appeared to find their places in the simple labyrinths but, as with the Ricercar a 6, the experience proved bloodless, if formally satisfying.

Easton and Fredersdorff took the solo lines in the D minor Concerto for Two Violins, Schmitz changing her viola for a violin to give a tutti force to back Easton, while Fredersdorff scored the ripieno services of a young musician whose face I recognized but who wasn’t acknowledged in the program (like the Canons’ flautist) but whom I’ve seen in Australian Digital Concert Hall broadcasts like this one on at least one previous program. Ma gave us the viola line, while Cottee and McCahon supplemented Da Costa’s left hand.

This is a very familiar work and we’ve heard sterling performances over the years, my first experience being the old Deutsche Grammophon disc from the late 1950s of Oistrakh father and son with the Gewandhaus under Konwitschny. Our Easton/Fredersdorff pairing came across as well-matched, both displaying their own personalities with a slight edge in volatility on Easton’s part, her partner giving a more polished production. Again, the ensemble appeared happy in their work with a good deal of mutual appreciation signs and smiling acknowledgement of a well-turned line. Their opening Vivace was exceptional because of its light bounce, despite that reinforced bass, bowing lengths kept modest and the entire body sprightly in attack.

A substantiating instance of the soloists’ striking their own paths came up in the central Largo with the fine-pointed partnership that arises in bar 10, here an understated pleasure to the bar 15/16 cadence. Even better music-making followed with remarkably sensitive interplay up to bar 31; but the whole movement is an easy-flowing duet and, to a certain extent, plays itself into your affections. While the finale made a rousing conclusion to the program, its success rate was uneven. For instance, the sweeping double stops in both solo violins from bar 41 to bar 48 were accomplished with impressive grandeur; their recurrence between bars 127 and 134 failed to catch the same fire because of a lack of pitch accuracy. However, with Da Costa driving the assault, these pages as a composite unit brought this night to an invigorating conclusion.

I’ve not got much to say about the contributions of commentators Jonathan Biggins and Jonathan Horton who made intermittent attempts to bring the arts of rhetoric and music into line, thereby aiming for some justification regarding this concert’s title. Some of the speakers’ addresses were entertaining, if several details stretched the bounds of belief or truth, and Biggins moved into an unexpectedly Jesuit trope in his final Bach encomium. But a sustained shared thesis might have been more persuasive, especially one that had been well-researched and didn’t look so blatantly toward raising laughs.

Two Bachs, two baroques

GOLDBERG VARIATIONS

Andrea Lam & Paul Grabowsky

Queensland Conservatorium Theatre

Saturday June 11, 2022

Andrea Lam

This latest gambit in Musica Viva‘s 2022 season gives us Lam and Grabowsky exercising their talents on the supremely accomplished Bach variations, which used to be rarely performed but currently attract all sorts of keyboard players. You can blame Glenn Gould for the attraction of the Goldberg Variations to contemporary pianists, the Canadian musician releasing his parameter-splitting recording in 1956 – since when things have never been the same. Of course, it’s more convenient to work through the score on a two-manual harpsichord (not to mention oh-so-authentic) so that intersecting lines don’t sound awkward. But what you lose in nerve-tensing clarity, you gain in dynamic and expressive potential.

Lam gave us the work as written, and she saw the task through with minimal trauma. On this occasion, that was her brief: to deliver the work ‘straight’, with technical prowess and interpretative insight. Grabowsky was required to improvise on the opening Aria‘s content, to transform Bach’s material into whatever harmonic, melodic or rhythmic shape occurred to him on the spot. I’d anticipate that, in later performances on this tour (Brisbane was the first), he might repeat himself; more than probable, given the nature of Grabowsky’s first dealings with the melody after he’d played it as written.

Throughout her account, Lam gave us a deft interpretation that took advantage of the piano’s powers to sustain and to offer toccata-like brilliance. Her reading of the initial Aria was slow-paced and restrained dynamically – a regular pavane. So her attack on the first variation sounded all the more startling, a full-blooded demonstration of hefty two-part counterpoint. I wasn’t certain about the player’s control during the early unison canon where the counterpoint faltered. Later, Variation 12’s canon at the fourth held a moment of dislodgement in its first half,

But Lam’s attack on the Ouverture and the following Variation 17 was direct and powerfully couched; in fact, the night’s lack of repeat observations turned the former into a too-short experience, the 3/8 second-part passing all too quickly. You couldn’t ask for a more lucid and fair reading of the alla breve Variation 22, each line individual and perceptible throughout. Later, the group of Variations 27 to 29 served as a masterclass in accelerating excitement and energy with sparkling finger-work in the right-hand demi-semiquavers of 28 and an exhilarating interplay at 29’s bars 9 to 14, 17 to 20, and 27 to 30.

The only mis-step that caused a hiccough in these final pages came in the bierhaus-reminiscent Quodlibet, before another calm restatement of the Aria brought us back to base. I’ve heard this last performed as a strong celebration, the dynamics amped up to turn the penultimate sinuous weaving of bars 27 to 31 into a chain of thumping assertions. Lam chose the upper path, giving us just the poetry and inbuilt elegance.

My problem with the night was that the recital started late; don’t know why – I was in my seat on time, everybody else turned up promptly (as far as I could tell), no obvious crises were on show in the foyer, and no smoke was seeping from backstage. Whatever the cause, Grabowsky didn’t get on with his Variations exercise until later than anticipated, the procedure made more delayed by a post-interval address from Musica Viva’s State Manager Paul McMahon, jiggling our charity bones through an EOFY reminder. The outcome was that, due to transportation necessities in getting back home, I had to leave before Grabowsky had finished.

The jazz musician’s concern was not that described by one patron returning to her seat who assured her companion that Grabowsky was going to go through each variation in a sort of cosmic re-assessment. His real concentration was on the Aria (which Bach left pretty much alone, using its bass as his creative fulcrum) and he restated it for us before embarking on what sounded like two variations of his own, carrying on in Bachian style. Well, that’s one way to get things rolling.

Then began the mystery of watching and hearing Grabowsky offer his own mutations. For a good deal longer than I’d expected, the path was followable, without any breaks into free-fall or a completely different musical dimension. Indeed, as the pianist grew into his own fluency, the structure occasionally dissipated, only to be brought back into line eventually. This is a large part of Grabowsky’s craft, of course, an aspect of it that for me has lain undiscovered; television apart, I’ve only seen him live twice – once with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra playing the solo in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and on an earlier occasion in the Melbourne Town Hall directing the Australian Art Orchestra (which might have been a performance of Passion). Not to mention his score for the opera Love in the Age of Therapy which I heard 20 years ago and of which, in my memory, there is left not a rack behind.

What struck me about this improvisation process was its normality and placidity. Grabowsky introduced plenty of 7th and 9th chords as well as upper-line work that sometimes bordered on doodling. In fact, the impression I gained at some spots was of a tinkering rather than a full-scale construction. Most of the enterprise’s intrigue came in hearing the pianist move from one harmonic mesh to another, in particular an extended sequence in E flat, from which key Grabowsky was in no hurry to extricate himself. Mind you, he was well on the way by the time I had to go, having landed in G minor and taking his own sweet time getting away from that into the home-key major.

That’s the point, of course: the improviser is under no obligation to rush but can milk a sweet spot for as long as s/he likes. It’s a different kind of baroque. Where Bach gives rein to his overpowering skill in manipulating notes across mathematical and lyrical frameworks, ornamentation hanging from the framework like grapes from a trellis, Grabowsky moves into a creative sphere where, if there’s nothing actually in excess, you can yet hear the borders sliding towards being unmoored on the smoothest of anchoring surfaces. To his great credit, this player manages the classical/jazz divide with equilibrium, neither side being forgotten or eclipsed in the process. Not that you’d expect anything less, especially when you call to mind his decades of exercising that specific musical muscle.

I’ve never had much patience with those who pose the question: what would Bach have thought of it? There’s no possible answer because the only finding is circumscribed by impossibilities. Do you think of Bach as an innovator, or as a culminating point? Is he the Baroque’s musical summa, or can you trace the developmental path through his sons to the geniuses-in-waiting of 1732 and 1765? What this night proves is that we can’t leave him alone; everybody in the Western musical world sources Bach, the well-spring of his – and our – craft. You emerge from this recital (even early) with great satisfaction that both executants have given the best of themselves in two versions of this towering construct.

A serene melancholy

BECOMING

Johanna Selleck

Move Records MCD 629

In a fortnight when the new Prime Minister and/or his Minister for Foreign Affairs have slashed their carbon-spouting paths to Tokyo, South Pacific khanates and New Age republics, as well as the apparently obligatory drop-in to Jakarta (when did Indonesia become [according to our gutter-spawned Fifteenth Estate] the compulsory first overseas foray for a fresh Australian PM?), it came as a refreshment to experience Melbourne composer Selleck’s new hour-long CD. It has an individual Asian perspective as its textual components comprise haiku and renga in three languages – French (along with Australia, a major colonial power in the Pacific), English, and Tibetan (a long stretch geographically but just as much a legitimate Chinese satellite as the Spratly Islands).

Selleck’s suite follows a Four Seasons format with a substantial Spring, a lesser temporally substantial scenario for Summer, then a minute less for Autumn and a desiccating two minutes shorter for Winter. A cadenza for shakuhachi occupies the centre of this foray into Vivaldi/Piazzolla country and the disc concludes with an instrumental Interlude and a valedictory Finale. The Spring movement was first heard at the 2006 Port Fairy Spring Music Festival, while the complete score enjoyed a first airing at the following year’s Castlemaine Festival. I missed both performances, as well as the August 2013 city interpretation at the Melbourne Recital Centre which featured the three vocal artists heard on this CD – soprano Merlyn Quaife, counter-tenor Dean Sky-Lucas, bass Jerzy Kozlowski – and the Silo String Quartet. As far as I can tell, the Silos have radically changed personnel, founder Caerwen Martin the sole survivor. Here the two violins are Lynette Rayner and Zachary Johnston, with Barbara Hornung accounting for the viola line. As for the shakuhachi contribution, 2013’s Anne Norman has been replaced by the inimitable, ever-questing Adam Simmons.

Selleck is not the first Australian musician/composer/writer to be enchanted with the three locales visited by the Albanese/Wong circus. Japan has exerted a modest interest for some formidable names; well, I can think of one in Richard Meale whose Clouds now and then, Soon it will die and Nagauta balance the same musician’s catholic involvement in Europe with Very High Kings, Las Alboradas and Incredible Floridas. What about New Guinea, Tonga, Samoa and – above all else – the Solomon Islands? Here, you struggle, although Alfred Hill made a now largely-neglected fist for New Zealand – about as South in the Pacific as you can get. Indonesia provided an occasional mine/source for Peter Sculthorpe; who could forget his gamelan imitation at the start to Sun Music 3? Not to mention his one-time fiancee Anne Boyd’s career-long focus on Asia as seen in (to mention just a few titles) Angklung, Goldfish through summer rain and Bali Moods. These are names that were productive during my life-time; God knows how many young composers are currently delighting in the music of our geographical neighbours, mirroring in their craft the ways in which our local bogan-redneck brigades revel in the art of Ubud and Jembawan.

Spring opens with the quartet working arpeggios and a three note motif before Quaife enters with a haiku by Selleck herself that proposes a dreamy landscape before the mood changes to a more rhythmically definite segment, its text celebrating the burgeoning power of the season. Quietly, the shakuhachi timbre merges into the ambience in antiphon with the strings playing jagged twitterings while Simmons works through a brilliant display of sound manufacturing devices, Quaife declaiming a haiku concerning a butterfly by Masaoka Shiki, the vocal writing here the most challenging so far with a splendid juncture of voice-into-shakuhachi at the change of scene. Sliding high notes from the strings preface the final setting of verses by Australian poet Janice Bostok, translated into French, the voice almost following a single note as it offers the image of barrel water gleaming in sunlight – which brings this four-part song-cycle to a comatose conclusion, with a final sparkle coming from an uncredited bell sound that could have escaped from a by-standing set of chimes or crotales.

Selleck’s language is far from abrasive; indeed, her opening pages for the Silo strings work above a low base drone, her melody-making lyrical for the most part. While she makes her players work with production techniques that engage the ear, nothing is obtrusive because she’s seeking that compositional dorado of sustaining an atmosphere long enough to become comfortable. Simmons makes the most of his instrument’s capabilities, especially the wind-in-tunnel effects and the capacity for producing two simultaneous notes. Selleck’s soundscape, as you can imagine, sits in congenial partnership with her brief text slabs, suggesting worlds in sparse imagery.

Kozlowski begins another Shiki haiku at the opening to Summer, Sky-Lucas eventually taking part in a duet after the bass has made us comfortable with an imitation of our favourite family bonze. The scene is of suspended rains allowing ant processions to pursue their industry. In this segment, Selleck continues to follow an intriguing path between passages transparent enough for you to analyse chord progressions and other segments packed with vehement, jagged action from both voices and instruments. Sky-Lucas has most of the honours (and the work) for a Natsumo Soseki haiku, focused on the setting sun, where the vocal line mimics its own text while simultaneously expressing a slow mobility.

A series of overlapping string textures supports three lines by Bostok that are sung in both English and Tibetan by Sky-Lucas and Kozlowski; here is another passage that is diatonic-susceptible where the quartet’s behaviour suggests the lushness of Meale’s Cantilena Pacifica. Selleck ends her Spring with a haiku by Jack de Vidas that proposes a lover/nightingale pair (thank you, Enrique) singing to the moon (and hello to you, Arnold), counter-tenor and bass producing barely mobile lines above a drone-like (second inversion?) minor chord from the Silos and a few shakuhachi breaths for punctuation.

You could twist yourself into teleological knots by seeking relationships between the four poems that constitute each movement’s textual material in the vocal movements of Becoming. Rather than indulge in a search that in my hands would definitely prove fruitless, I think that it’s better to simply allow yourself to be led through each season and finale, taking the poems as single objects where the intellectual or emotional relationships are given, data that you can mould into your own interpretation. Certainly, my response to Summer veers towards the melancholy, if not tragic; others may find a sultry languor, or a moody brooding. All of which proposes that Selleck’s work is as suggestive in its multi-faceted emotional attraction as is her technical skill.

Simmons’ shakuhachi solo is a delight. The instrument is employed so as to display its abilities and potential, all the while maintaining its nationalist character despite some firm aleatoric writing. Apart from the characteristic chiff-attacks and near-overblowing, Selleck includes some atmospheric, small glissandi, bending notes downward to produce a series of plaints that reinforce my sense of melancholy underpinning this work.

Simmons takes us into Autumn, dovetailing with the Silos in brief fragments and, eventually with Quaife and Sky-Lucas in a renga by Fujiwara na Toshiyuki: a forthright duet, almost martial in effect. As is the following three-line maybe-haiku by the shadowy KWH, and another renga by Bunya na Asayasu. All three have a continuous motif of wind: a threatening presence, a symbol of evanescence, a power of dispersal. Only the final text by de Vidas brings us back to earth when the poet laments the ageing of his wind/voice. All four settings are duets, serving both soprano and counter-tenor as excellent vehicles for expressive collaboration. As well, Selleck has contrived an intelligent representation of this season’s combination of colour and decay.

Kozlowski is the solitary vocalist for Winter, which mirrors Autumn in its aggressive nature, sparked by images of a winter blast (Natsume Seibi), a pale sun (KWH), a snowstorm and loneliness (Shuji Miya), and an internal thunderstorm (KWH again). Here, the musical vocabulary is fraught with harmonic tension, timbrally concentrated as the shakuhachi is silent while the strings ride the blast. Unexpectedly, there is a cross-breeding of the last two poems (renga and haiku), Kozlowski returning to the loneliness theme before a substantial two-minute postlude for strings which operates above a pedal note while a plethora of open 5ths and a volatile arpeggio figure dominate the movement’s ending, the bass once more giving an echo of his spirit-lowering message of despair.

Selleck maintains the gloom into her Interlude for strings alone. This is a movement that suggests the final stretch of Berg’s Lyric Suite, although the Australian work shows less bleak a prospect with a well-worked melodic arch and some stretches of deliberate instrumental colour, like powerful block chords to interrupt the interweaving lines, and a series of slow upward glissandi. Still, the landscape here seems full of the milk of human kindness, each instrument treating the original arch with a benevolent calm, the Interlude’s final bars a moving fade-to-black with Selleck’s forces sustaining notes at opposite ends of the sound spectrum.

In the Finale, all three voices come together for the first time in a KWH haiku which is first sung in English, then by Kozlowski alone in Tibetan and in a monotone suggestive of a dungchen. Again, the text is an updated vanitas vanitatum, the voices mingling but somehow knotted. A kind of break arises where the forces collaborate in what sounds like rising and falling C Major triads, a vocalise for everybody. The throbbing pulse continues into another de Vidas haiku translated into French; then, another poem by the same poet in English. Finally, a culmination where the single line ‘Become so quiet’ is translated into (and sung in) Japanese, French and Tibetan – another fading into nothingness with a revenant, solitary chiming ping to send us on our way.

In these final settings, Selleck follows her theme of yielding to inevitability: our illusions shatter and are gone, personal grief is deleted by indifferent birdsong, human endeavour is momentary, probably futile . . . and the rest is silence. Having said that, the work’s conclusion is far from grim. The composer’s responsiveness to a wide range of texts is highly sympathetic, measured and ecstatic in turn; her application of instrumental colour shows telling restraint; and the performers impress for their clear-voiced delivery of a construct that successfully straddles an aesthetic fence – not too sour, not too sweet.

Exuberance carries the day

MOZART & BRITTEN

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday May 23, 2022

Stefanie Farrands

Here in Brisbane for the last in a 12-performance national run, the ACO played a program of music by two of music’s greatest brats with admirable panache, taking an individual approach to two Mozart scores – the K.136 Divertimento in D and the brilliant Sinfonia Concertante of 1779 – and exerting an apparently effortless expertise on Britten’s newly-resuscitated (well, in the last decade) Elegy for Strings and his still-striking Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.

Three of these works require strings only. Mozart’s Sinfonia here appeared in an arrangement that left out the original’s pairs of horns and oboes, in line with a ‘tradition’ that obtained in the 19th century of rescoring this writer’s works at will. Sorry, but I missed the winds’ timbres significantly, even if anyone with half a brain can see the financial logic in using readily available resources, not carrying around nation-wide a quartet of wind players who contribute only half-an-hour’s input to each performance. The texture changes and, if you love the double concerto as Mozart wrote it, your expectations are bound to be dashed at too many points when the ambience is all-strings.

So, nothing left to do but sublimate your disappointment and enjoy what you’re offered by the country’s premier chamber orchestra. Britten’s Elegy, written in the composer’s 14th year, shows a talent of striking assurance, especially when it leaves off its portentous opening for more active fields. Like a fair amount of what was to come in later years, the piece impresses for its executive skill and emotional liveliness, while very little bricks and mortar remain in the memory. You can, if you like, ferret out reflections of Mendelssohn – another high achiever when young – even in the recourse to fugato.

For all that, the ACO’s 17 members produced a powerful and committed reading, the sonorous carapace admirably firm apart from a couple of production flaws from the second violins, apparently missing their principal, Helena Rathbone. Artistic director/concertmaster/leader Richard Tognetti contributed his impeccable individuality in an exposed passage (or two?) but this brief work’s appearance impressed as a curiosity, fleshing out an unknown corner of Britten’s juvenilia for aficionados. Thanks for the experience but I won’t be buying the CD.

Speaking of recordings, the ACO recorded part of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante in 1986 (the pre-Tognetti Age), with Carl Pini and Irina Morozowa the soloists. Some 24 years further on, Tognetti and the ACO’s then principal viola, Christopher Moore, recorded the whole work; a memorable pairing which I witnessed in Hamer Hall about that time. It seems to be a selective rite of passage for the position because here was the newly-appointed ACO principal violist, Stefanie Farrands, collaborating with Tognetti and reflecting the violinist’s chameleonic path through this score with excellent reliability.

In fact, this performance was a delight for the experience of the two solo lines which sounded faultless to my ears across the work’s length, notably in the two cadenzas where the linear mirror-work showed that the possibility for musical dialogue isn’t just a Goethean aphorism. Apart from the excellence of ensemble work, the interpretation distinguished itself for its elegance; some distance from versions in which the output strives to be unbuttoned to the point of sprawling – a temptation in the opening maestoso‘s 71-bar scene-setting tutti.

Not that we weren’t faced with some unexpected moments, like the slow approaches to fermata in bars 176 and 189. But the delectable chase between the two soloists that precedes the movement’s recapitulation was exactly that, as opposed to a machismo-laden competition. The wind absence didn’t strike me as a defect in the central Andante until the coda where the oboes were sorely missed at bar 124 and beyond. Still, the concluding Presto was handled sensibly with a remarkable neatness of phrasing and an infectious, sparkling delivery.

Another improbable youthful score, Mozart’s D Major Divertimento comes from the composer’s 16th year but in recent decades its popularity/regularity of performance is approaching that of the Eine kleine Nachtmusik serenade. Tognetti and his forces gave it a smart-as-paint run-through, doing their best to offer as much variation as possible with unexpected phrasing, striking textural differentiations and the usual ducks-and-drakes games with dynamics. While the first two movements demonstrated (if it was really needed) the ACO’s cleverly etched style, the finale was brilliant in sound and execution with the ensemble introducing all sorts of production tricks – saltando, pizzicato, spiccato, staccato – to brighten up Mozart’s plain Presto.

As for a major Britten work to balance the Mozart sinfonia, the Frank Bridge Variations filled the bill quite adequately. Written when the British composer was 24 (a tad older than Mozart when he produced his double concerto), the score brought international notice and fame at home. Britten’s many admirers regard this as a pivotal step in the path that led to the last string quartet and cello suite; while the less idolatrous among us find whole segments of admirable craft and emotional weight (Variations II and IX, and the powerful welter of the final bars), it’s hard to ignore other passages of superficial glitter and skittishness in the work’s central movements.

Another pre-Tognettitime recording comes from 1982/3 when the ACO recorded this work with Dene Olding leading the way. I doubt whether this early product from the ensemble’s first decade of operations would match Monday night’s performance in terms of precision and character. Each change in fabric substantiated the players’ reputation for informed virtuosity – from some searching non-vibrato chords near the start, through the ten violins playing in flawless unison during the Wiener Walzer, later into a breathtaking Moto perpetuo, and eventually exploring the realm of three ideally matched violas during the penultimate Chant.

This was a well-focused evening’s work where two adolescent compositions were paired with two semi-mature creations – all carried out with polish and insight. I left QPAC full of questions about the quality of genius, particularly as it obtains in the young, and heartened by the enthusiasm for music-making that came from the night’s music itself and from its interpreters. Of course, the questions remain unanswered but the gifts of Tognetti and the ACO remain as valuable and uplifting as ever.

Heavy round the middle

AUSTRIAN ENCOUNTERS

Australian Boys Choir/ Vocal Consort

Australian Digital Concert Hall

Sunday May 22, 2022

Following an out-of-town performance in Geelong’s St. Mary’s Basilica, the Australian Boys Choir/Vocal Consort combination, supported by an unpressured Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra, worked through an attractive program on Sunday afternoon in the Sacred Heart Church, Carlton: the last venue in which I heard these singers before leaving Melbourne for the defrosting North. When I say ‘attractive’, I mean, of course, attractive to me, bouncing off many years of trying to resurrect Classical-era masses in the choir loft of Sacred Heart Church, Kew; to its credit, not the most intransigently backward-looking post-Vatican II congregation in the city.

Artistic director/conductor Nicholas Dinopoulos took his combined forces through two Litaniae Lauretanae – one by the young Mozart, the other one of three settings by Haydn’s younger brother, Johann Michael – each preceding a mass: first, the Missa Brevis ‘Sancti Joannis de Deo’ by Joseph Haydn; finally, Mozart’s Spatzenmesse K. 220. As soloists, we heard soprano Suzanne Shakespeare, contralto Emily Bauer-Jones, tenor Henry Choo, and baritone Stephen Marsh. A central chamber organ played a fulcrum role, manipulated by Michael Fulcher. Oh, and a welcome encore involving most parties was Mozart’s Laudate Dominum from the K. 339 Vespers of 1780.

If you were looking for faults in these performances, they were fairly rare – apart from one rather large one: not enough sopranos. From the camera work supplied by the Australian Digital Concert Hall, it was hard to tell which members of the red-surpliced central corps of singers were handling the top line, and how many were contributing to a quite forward alto layer. I understand that illness had depleted the treble ranks – the luck of the performance-supervising gods these days – but a lack of soprano gusto told pretty early in the program’s first element: the Mozart litany. By the time the ensemble had reached the Kyrie movement’s second ‘miserere’ in bar 20, the top F sounded ‘off’; not that this unreliability lasted, but it’s the kind of flaw that is best insured against by finding accuracy through reinforcing numbers.

We heard the four soloists early in the following Sancta Maria; a well-matched group, apart from the two males’ tendency to relish their own sound. An odd factor that persisted through all four works was incidental but distracting: from tenors or basses in the chorus, there was a practice of emphasizing certain initial consonants or fricatives, so that ‘clemens’ or ‘causa’ in this movement came across as near-Welsh. Still, the musical contours were fluent here, and also in the consequent Salus infirmorum and Regina caelorum, Emily Bauer-Jones a capable if hard-pressed contributor to the latter.

For the final Agnus Dei, in the choral output at bars 27 to 30 for the last repetition of ‘qui tollis peccata mundi’, the top line simply disappeared for most of the time; probably because of the lower-lines’ supporting trombones, a trio that had played with discretion up to this stage. But the sopranos managed the awkward G flats and A flats of this concluding movement’s final bars with equanimity.

Onto the Little Organ Mass by Joseph Haydn and again the sopranos wavered in the soft Fs of bars 9-10. But then, you could not fault their delivery of the G and F at bar 19 and the F of the second ‘Kyrie’ in bar 22. This mass’s Gloria is a telescoped melange where each line has a separate text – getting through the liturgy at break-neck speed in 31 bars – while everyone comes back into communal focus when the Holy Spirit appears. Much the same takes place in Haydn’s Credo, with conformity of text at the ‘Et incarnatus’ through to ‘sepultus est’, before the singers go their four separate paths until the declaration of eternal life comes around, at which point we all reassuringly find common ground. Both these Mass sections are hard to decipher (did Haydn mean them to be intellectually coherent?) but the passages of textual uniformity provided welcome resting stages. We had further sibilant stresses: ‘sepultus’, ‘Sancto’, even ‘Crucifixus’ which scored a consonantal attack that would have done credit to a Sassenach-belittling Glaswegian.

In the Sanctus, the choral rhythmic impulse proved very satisfying, those passages in thirds between sopranos and altos at bars 23 and 27 a high-flying delight. Fulcher’s solid organ solos for Haydn’s Benedictus proved to be just that: without much flexibility and not as precise in a few scale passages as you might have expected. Shakespeare’s solo came across with fine purity of output; some breath points sounded oddly positioned, compensated for by a smooth treatment of that challenging 12th leap in bar 47. Still, the overall approach to this movement struck me as too fast, the organ’s right-hand work very prominent, although to be sure small organs don’t leave you with much latitude in timbre choices.

Plenty to appreciate in the Agnus Dei, especially the choral ensemble’s unanimity of attack on the block chords that obtain before Haydn reaches his ‘dona nobis pacem’ settings. In this noble fabric, the emphasis of the first letter in ‘qui’ was unnecessarily intrusive; but then, so were the two lower lines at the movement’s climactic explosion of bar 50 where the sopranos disappeared. Nevertheless, the reading of this mass succeeded for its assurance of delivery, the choral fabric supported by a pliant ARCO ensemble.

After interval came a true curiosity in the junior Haydn’s litany setting, probably receiving its first Australian performance; indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find reports of any other renderings since the work’s first publication around 1765. Fulcher’s organ played an important instrumental role in the initial Kyrie eleison; once again, a few digital errors interrupted the right hand’s decorative outpouring. But the trumpet duo and timpani support lightened the prevailing ambience considerably. For the Sancta Maria, Dinopoulos opted for a measured semi-slow march tempo, while the scourifying enthusiasts continued with a vehement last syllable articulation of ‘mystica’ and made more hay with ‘Consolatrix’ (bar 77) and ‘Christianorum’ (bar 84). Haydn’s polyphonic interplay proved occasionally thick in these pages, complicated by the trombones working in vocal support – a sonorous factor I wasn’t expecting, given the participants in my score.

Again, the disappearing sopranos problem emerged at odd moments in Regina angelorum, e.g. the admittedly low tessitura from bar 29 during which the altos took charge. But the singers aren’t over-exercised in this section, the main aural interest emerging in the interchanges between organ and violins across two entertaining interludes. A top G required in bar 1 of the Agnus Dei made a hefty demand very early in the finale; but later, at bar 14, the youngest singers had no trouble generating a resonantly full and forceful projection. And the entire body, singers and instrumentalists, bounced happily to the score’s conclusion in an infectious 12/8 fugato-rich sequence that teetered on the verge of being too clever for its own material. A highly intriguing work, in the end, and I hope the Choir keeps it fresh in its repertoire.

There’s little to report about the familiar Mozart Mass in C. I would have been happier if the composer’s crotchets had been given their full worth throughout the Kyrie. One of the most elevating experiences of the afternoon came in the Gloria with its choir-soloists alternations,. in particular the elated joy that starts after ‘Qui sedet’ and here climaxed in a benign 15-bar ‘Amen’. I’d forgotten the strikingly dramatic effect of those triple-stop violin chords at ‘Crucifixus’, not to mention Mozart’s restraint in not lingering over the tragic core of the Credo. Dinopoulos set a brisk pace for the Sanctus with its bird-imitating violin strokes starting at bar 8, his sopranos in unexpectedly fine fettle here.

Shakespeare shone again in the intervening Benedictus; not surprisingly, as the soprano line has a melody while her colleagues are restricted to providing chordal support. This made an effective contrast to the surrounding happy ‘Hosanna’ acclamations which found the choir happily home-bound. Nonetheless, the top line impressed as pretty tired at the ‘miserere’ conclusion to the second Agnus Dei (the very exposed bars 32 to 37). You can always count on a rallying of strength for a Classic-era mass’s final Allegro; so it was here with a forceful finish to this easy-flowing gem.

Shakespeare enjoyed a third exposure in the encore, a piece which has the great virtue of benign reflection rather than technical display; a moving lyric which asks for calm articulation and a capacity for long breaths. Dinopoulos handled this final exhibition of his singers at work with quiet control and a sincerity of purpose that kept his audience rapt for some time at its conclusion. You rarely get tributes to your work as sincere as that.

Familiarity breeds excellence

MOZART DVORAK CHANCE

Acacia Quartet

Move Records MCD 626

The Acacia group from Sydney has come my way only once before, I think: the Muse CD from Move Records (MCD 587), released in 2018, which was a collaboration between this quartet and recorder Alicia Crossley, an album featuring Australian writers. This new release features one local composer – Alice Chance – and her work has also emerged recently on Move CDs: Inhaltations for another Crossley product in Bass Instincts (MCD 624) , and also Mirroring as part of percussionist Claire Edwardes’ program on Rhythms of Change (MD 3459).

Since its formation in 2010, the ensemble’s personnel has seemingly remained unchanged: violins Lisa Stewart and Myee Clohessy, viola Stefan Duwe, cello Anna Martin-Scrase. But is this actually the case? Some of the online material concerning the group lists Doreen Cumming as second violin; the CD has a group photo with Clohessy, and the Move website also lists her as part of the ensemble. Not that the group is alone in maintaining its original members; the Seraphim and Benaud Trios and the Orava String Quartet haven’t had to cope with any personnel comings and goings, unlike the Australian String Quartet which dizzies with its chameleonic shifts. But this steadiness across the years ensures a communal evenness of production and a collegial trust in established practices.

As well, the group is here reaping the benefits of preparation for public performance. Chance’s Sundried Quartet was given its premiere by the Acacias in March 2019, and they played it another three times in that year before the shroud of COVID fell over us all. In fact, a recital from November 3 of that year shows this exact program – Mozart’s K 421 Quartet in D minor, the Chance, Dvorak’s American Op. 96 – was played during the Glebe Music Festival. And Sundried was resuscitated for the Four Winds Festival last month when the Acacias performed at Barragga Bay’s outdoor amphitheatre; pretty much coinciding with this CD’s release.

In her CD leaflet notes, Chance links her quartet’s title to a tomato in a state of desiccation; in fact, her third movement is called Tomatoes. However, her association of music with a fruit is multi-faceted and the initial suggestion fragments in several directions. How far the correspondances carry you is your own business, of course, but it strikes me that Chance is stuck in the middle of making things easy for a listener with her four movement titles – Exposure, Dribble Castle, Tomatoes, Aloe vera – and difficult for herself in giving these physicalities an acoustic format. How to depict aurally the sun’s drying process and then offer the reassurance that her end product is not dead but succulent? What are we to make of hearing the proposed process of re-forming a sand castle by dribbling water over it, and do we actually hear this or are we just obliging Chance by imposing such suggestions on ourselves?

Exposure opens with some high bare 5ths which could represent the searing sun, or the American plains, or a medieval church preparing for the advent of organum. However you want to interpret this aural scenario, not much happens in rhythmic terms until about 2/3rds of the way through when the upper strings accelerate to a landscape of fast parallel scales (at the 4th?) that coalesce on a single note, leading to a final melancholy, late-Romantic lyric based on a falling four-note motif before a gripping final chord for all, which could be a realization of Chance’s ‘surprisingly delicious crisped ending’ – which infers that we’re still talking tomatoes . . . or bacon, or raisin bread, or potatoes.

Almost exclusively pizzicato, the quartet’s second movement considers a different type of sun-drying: the beach experience of making a sandcastle and modifying its construction with water, the dribbling of which is here exemplified by a rising scale passage with a flattened 7th. A little past half-way, the players reach for their bows and discharge a descending scale pattern in unison/at the octave before reverting to the opening material. This movement is a kind of scherzo, deftly written and carried out with a few production techniques thrown in, like Bartokian snaps and near-saltando. Here, more than in Exposure, Chance’s vocabulary is essentially diatonic, with few suggestions of harmonic confrontations.

Tomatoes opens with a cello pizzicato underpinning line, above which the other strings hold onto chords or shimmer. The top violin gives us a touch of jazz ‘bent’ notes, before the pizzicato includes another instrument and two upper voices combine for a sinewy duet. The movement is highly indebted to jazz inflexions and practice, along with a sense of jauntiness – but, even bending over backwards with good intentions, I can’t see the movement’s title reflected in what I hear, although the piece does suggest itself a fine backdrop to a scene from one of Waugh’s Bright Young Things novels.

Chance’s final movement is the longest of the four, giving us the balm of consolation after the preceding 10 minutes-plus of solar radiation. This musical salve oscillates between duple and triple metre but with an unctuous melody over the top of its calm, rocking nether regions. Again, concord is the name of this game with slight gestures towards harmonic adventure. The score moves towards an ardent highpoint before the musical unguent penetrates and we nestle cosily into a beneficent, benevolent leave-taking. Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Settling to their task, the Acacias enjoy urging out the composer’s melodic swathes which make gentle technical demands and bring this newly-composed work – commissioned by the players – to its conclusion. However, alongside Sundried, the surrounding Mozart and Dvorak works on this disc seem revolutionary.

Actually, you’re hard put to find Dvorak’s spirit-raising Op. 96 that challenging, apart from the Czech master’s delight in his own melody-writing skill. You’re bound to be pleased by the opening Allegro where the performers are cleanliness personified, excellent reliability and balance shining out at memorable moments like the twin violin work at bars 21 to 23 which is a delight that makes you look forward to the exposition’s repeat. My only gripe is that the second subject is handled too carefully, the phrases allowed to loll rather than breathe.

One of the finest tracks follows with Dvorak’s Lento in D minor, a case of the writer once more clearly not wanting to let go of his material. Stewart and Clohessy give a highly charged account of the movement’s core: the long duet that lasts from bar 43 to bar 81. Coupled with Martin-Scrase’s three exposure points (bars 11, 31, and 82), these passages of melting melodic lines invest the score with a heart-on-sleeve fervour that keeps its head, the ensemble working at a high level of interpretative sympathy. later, it’s hard to find faults in the scherzo/rondo where Stewart dazzles with her impeccable top notes, As and A flats searingly precise, the whole ensemble acting as one with split-second precision in attack and dynamic agreement, notably in the two F minor trio sections.

To my ear, Dvorak’s finale is over all too soon, its several panels full of breezy delight, striding High there led by the first violin’s slightly elliptical chief theme. Alongside this controlled ebullience, the Acacias continue to demonstrate their assurance of ensemble, as in the punchy C Major drive to conclusive chords across bars 61 to 67, followed by the smoothest of shifts to the A flat subject through two fill-in bars. Or focus on the blemish-free unison/octave downward arpeggio dives across bars 146 to 151. To the group’s great credit, the conclusion features no unscripted accelerando or scraping hysteria but maintenance of the composer’s good humour without any grimaces to distract from this happy score’s equanimity of temperament.

Understandably, these musicians did not repeat the development/recapitulation pages of the Mozart quartet’s opening Allegro, some 70 bars. Only masochistic purists would have insisted, I suppose, but the group’s Classical credentials were sufficiently well established without the elongation. It’s best to take this composer at face value, without trying to wring too much Don Giovanni or K. 466 out of the prevailing D minor. So the Acacias’ careful treading through this movement struck me as most appropriate, particularly as the players can handle soft passages without the sound colour becoming wispy, nebulous. A slight acceleration at the start of the development where Duwe’s viola takes prime position proved forgivable in the quick restoration of order by the time the sextuplets started in bar 59.

I think there’s one repeat missing near the start of the Andante, but no worries: Mozart prefigures Dvorak in being enamoured of his main melody which melts on the bow. This outlining impresses for its regular metre, like a gentle dance, and the feather-light touches of the group’s pianissimo contrast after the bold statements of bars 31 to 32 and bars 47 to 48. You have to listen hard for a few slight irregularities in the dotted-quaver-semiquaver rhythmic motif that dominates the Menuetto and, even so, there are only a couple of them in a reading of carefully drawn broad strokes. In the middle, Stewart and Duwe give a finely-spun duet-at-the-octave in the Trio‘s second part.

I’ve always been happier with a concluding Allegretto in this quartet which observes the jig-like bounce throughout; giving us the shadows but freeing the top parts in particular to work with tensile arcs rather than hefty swipes. The only bluffness you could find here came in the viola-dominated (well, for half the time) variation starting at bar 73; for the rest, the reading proved dynamically restrained, with some fine detail work peppering the Piu allegro coda.

A highly recommended disc from an ensemble that has swum pretty much under my radar but which, on this evidence, clearly stands among the top chamber groups in this country.