Re-released, at last

\WHAT IF A DAY OR A MONTH OR A YEAR

Gerald English, Jonathan Rubin, Sharyn Wiels

Move Records MD 3151

 

3151

 

This CD was recorded in Ormond Chapel at the University of Melbourne in mid-July 1979.   Scheduled for release as an LP, the pressing did not proceed but was delayed until 1995 when Move issued it as a CD.   Here it is again, remixed and edited by the company’s recording elder statesman, Martin Wright.   English and fellow artists Jonathan Rubin and Sharyn Wicks offer 26 tracks – 18 vocal, 6 for lute solo, 2 instrumental duos.   Some of the pieces are familiar to anyone with a smattering of interest in English composition at the time of Elizabeth I and her successor: Dowland’s In darkness let me dwell, Sorrow, stay and Can she excuse my wrongs; Campion’s Shall I come, sweet love, to thee and It fell on a summer’s day; Robert Jones’ Go to bed, sweet Muse.

As master of the genre, Dowland’s work is well represented with six ayres and The Frog Galiard arranged for the two instruments.  Another major contributor is Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger, who scores five vocal contributions and one pavan.   Thomas Campion, Dowland’s rival in the solo song stakes, is heard in four ayres, Robert Jones in three.   The remainder is all instrumental: Anthony Holborne’s The night watch (the other work for lute and gamba), the anonymous  Robin and Lord Zouch, his march for solo lute, and three pieces by Francis Cutting – Gig, Mrs. Anne Markham’s Pavan, and A toy.   Most of the tracks are brief in length.   The longest song is Dowland’s 4’22” In darkness let me dwell; the briefest, Ferrabosco’s Fain I would, but O I dare not at a minute; the most substantial instrumental offering is Cutting’s Mrs. Anne Markham’s Pavan – the longest track on the disc at 6’22” – and the fastest is Cutting’s A toy at 0″42″.   The whole thing comes out at about 63 minutes in length.

So much for the content.  The two instrumentalists I haven’t come across but, as I understand, they both went to Europe  (Switzerland?) to further their careers, getting married along the way.  Distinguished tenor Gerald English graced these shores for some years, most notably as Director of Opera Studies at the Victorian College o\f the Arts in the 1980s, as well as appearing in all styles of work.   I think he was part of the Deller Consort that toured here in the early 1960s – probably in 1964, appearing in Melbourne as an offshoot of a larger engagement at the Adelaide Festival of that year.  The ensemble sang in Wilson Hall and I was part of a student contingent that had seats on the stage.  The timing is right for English to have been a member but, at a distance of 55-plus years, I can’t be certain.

And as for his appearances in Melbourne, I was present at very few: possibly an early or Baroque opera; The Diary of One who Vanished at the 1992 Melbourne International Festival  –  days when the festival was worth attending for its music content; a one-off appearance  st the Assembly Hall in Collins St for the Chamber Made organization, or is that a completely stuffed-up instance of failing memory?   At all events, I saw him in audiences more often than I heard him: a great pity and I am apparently one of the few among my acquaintance who was not exposed to his high tenor on numerous occasions.

As nearly everyone has said already, English’s voice was a highly individual one; in my mind, it couldn’t be mistaken for any other for its note-centredness, impressive rapidity of negotiation, flawless diction, and unabashedly ‘forward’ projection.   As you can hear in this British music, nothing is lost or thrown away as incidental; dealing with works of this transparency, the tenor knew the value of every scrap of music.  And the most admirable element – one that distinguishes English from his peers – is the lack of ponderousness, self-importance, or ego.

Of the  six Dowland songs, pride of place goes to In darkness let me dwell, the tenor splendidly counterweighted by lute and gamba as he picks his way through the semper dolens melody without going in for over-emphasis, even at hellish jarring sounds; still, he does get a tad agitated in O let me living die and the pointedness of the line Till death do come stands as a lesson in subtle deliberation, albeit in miniature.   Were every thought an eye is rarely sung, possibly for its four-square shape although the internal syncopations and delays/emphases keep you slightly on the qui vive; all is fine except those emphatic three notes at the end of some stanzas.   English takes some pleasure in delicately emphasizing the syncopations during Can she excuse my wrongs, but you would wait a long while before you came across a singer who can despatch the final quatrain of both stanzas with such equanimity, making the awkward disjunction between words and music dissipate.

Sorrow, stay is given without gamba and the lucidity of texture is remarkable.   In this brilliantly conceived song, where the composer’s musical responses are potentially predictable yet seem inevitable, judged to a gloom-laden nicety, the interpretation puts forward motion at its centre; no languishing, no lingering is allowed to interrupt the work’s movement to a quiet despair.   Not quite the other side of the lover’s coin but a more optimistic setting of the same themes of death and love, Me, me and none but me – the second Dowland song without gamba – comes across as an amiably asymmetric construct with an easy fluency that should have appealed to Sting during his brief flirtation with Dowland’s music; alas, no: more taxing masterpieces attracted the British pop star’s attention, to nobody’s benefit.   The final piece by this composer, Lady, if you so spite me, is more ornate than the other Dowland pieces: a fanciful flight to toy with the sexual specificity of the text and a fine example of English’s breath control in the last plangent line.

One of Campion’s most well-known ayres gives this CD its title, a setting for voice and lute alone.   This is an ideal vehicle for English as the poem is articulated with remarkable clarity, lacking the pliability of metre common in this writer’s great contemporary.   What impresses most is the rhythmic heft that both performers give to a simple construct without making any obvious effort.   Shall I come, sweet love, to thee (another voice/lute performance) is missing its middle stanza but the reading makes you believe that the straightforward passage of the first four lines is continued in the following two lines of each sextet – and what a splendid, fitting ritardando at While these cold nights freeze me dead.

English and Rubin reach one of the highpoints of this disc at Campion’s I care not for these ladies which is given with a gentle swagger, particularly in the final couplet of each stanza where the singer avoids the predictable with a foreshortening of specific syllables to unsettle expectations of the four-square.   Its flavour is bucolic and slightly racy, but the delivery is ideally polished.    The most challenging of this set of four selections arrives with It fell on a summer’s day where the metre is displaced in the central lines, and then Campion adds on extra length in the final repeated verses.   Not that you’d know it; the lute and gamba work is as smooth and unflustered as English’s poised delivery which is, again, of some more-than-suggestive lines couched in exquisite lyricism.

Ferrabosco, younger or elder, are – for me – names in a catalogue of Tudor/Jacobean composers, but I would need less fingers than those available on one hand to recall the times when I heard music by either father or son.    So this CD does a service in bringing into context a small sample of the later family member’s work.   The influence of Dowland is evident; not just in subject matter, which is common to all – love and death – but the development of elongated lines in the best of these pieces strikes me as similar if not as idiosyncratic as in the senior writer’s songs.

Fain I would, but O I dare not is a fine example of varying musical line-length to cope with a sestet that is unexceptional in its scansion.   As expected, English smooths out the irregularities so that the piece – one minute long, even with a repeated final couplet – has a fluency of motion in text and music where nothing is wasted even if the inferential level complicates your assimilation or reception of the material.   With Donne’s The Expiration (So, so leave off this last lamenting kiss),  Ferrabosco strikes a fine balance between celebration and resignation: the lovers have to part but the leave-taking is conceit-rich, if not studied.   English and his colleagues ignore the temptation to droop but carve the work into a slow dance of inveigling grace.

In the same vogue, Shall I seek to ease my grief is concerned with a similar sense of loss, although the feeling is clearly one-sided.   There is little relief here, not even the fetching image of Eros shooting a Parthian dart at the wailing lover.   But English brings an unsentimental pathos to the final lines where the singer/poet is looking forward to the grave – or are we to go back to the Eng. Lit 1 re-interpretation where ‘dying’ means something else entirely?    Another rueful lament at falling out of love comes in Unconstant love, which operates in a higher tessitura than nearly everything else on the disc and where English’s voice suffers from some raspiness –  not on the top note; just one or two below it, and not all the time.    Like hermit poor, with its dour repeated-note first lines, is yet another mini-ode to disappointed love.   It doesn’t follow the monochromatic path set at its opening but walks its despairing way with occasional flights of vocal self-indulgence.   This is a polished performance which – as in so many of these songs – displays the composer’s innate fastidiousness; operating within a small palette of colours, yet presenting a unique emotional tableau in each.

The three songs by Robert Jones are apparently simple but ask for a wide-ranging technical equipment from both singer and lutenist – yes, the gamba is present but not as challenged. In Sweet, if you like and love me still, the opening quatrain is simple enough, but the following lines in each stanza are incident-packed with unexpected pauses and sustained notes, along with a few pronunciation oddities – well, they seem so to this untutored ear.   In amiable words and music, the song warns the beloved that the singer/poet/composer is not prepared to tolerate rivals.   But the mooted displeasure comes out of a landscape that is mild and insouciant: it’s a take-it-or-leave-it world here. A more regretful tone comes in Shall I look to ease my grief?, a companion piece to the Ferrabosco song Shall I seek to ease my grief: both composers set the same anonymous text but English has chosen different verses from the original to use as his second stanza. The Jones song moves in a triple metre for four verses, then jumps into a duple rhythm for the final line.  The text is doom-laden – What remains but only dying? – but the setting of these words is frisky.   Not that the performers treat it off-handedly but the impression is that this lover is singing for effect.

The last song on the CD is Jones’ Go to bed, sweet Muse where, possibly for reasons of space, the third stanza is omitted: a pity, as it finishes off the poem with a more overt direction to the listener (the singer, or poet, or composer, or you) to stop any self-torture. The message is a nice conclusion to all that has come before: don’t get upset at disappointment because the nature of love is unpredictable.  Jones’ setting is simple: most of the melody is step-wise and just asks for beauty of timbre – which you get throughout this disc in spades.

The eight instrumental pieces range from less than a minute to the CD’s two longest tracks.   Two solo lute pieces by Francis Cutting – A toy and Gig – are in simple AABB form and are over before you’ve settled in to them; I’ve heard both as guitar solos for intermediate students but Rubin plays them with an attractive piquancy.  The same composer’s substantial Mrs Anne Markham’s Pavan employs a very refined language, the dance’s stately progress disrupted by several ornate flights of semiquavers, although the player omits one of these about 5 or six ‘bars’ from the end.    Added to which, a few notes – three, at least – do not ‘carry’ well in these small fioriture chains.

Another slight product is Anthony Holborne’s The Night Watch, one of the lute and gamba duets.    It’s a simple march in AABBCC format with a sprightly opening gambit, assuredly more suggestive of the city waits in a British town than of Rembrandt’s vain-glorious military officers.   The other duet is The Frog Galiard by Dowland with the bass line given a semi-pizzicato treatment.   This famous piece that brings up memories of the composer’s Now, o now, I needs must part song, is a test of the lutenist’s dexterity; Rubin manages most of the divisions neatly enough, only a handful of notes not registering.

A Ferrabosco pavan is the second-longest piece on offer and one of the finest things on this collection.    Rubin’s colour shadings, his linear clarity and adoption of an unruffled pace all contribute to a fine account of a work that is not long on flashiness but loaded with powerful sentiment.   The two anonymous pieces are Lord Zouch, his march which Rubin performs with a keen eye for rhythm; not as rapid in his attack as some interpreters but better able to handle the decorated repeats with near-faultless clarity.  The other is Robin – which I believe is also/better known as Robin is to the greenwood gone.   Another formally simple piece, the approach is as restrained as other interpreters, but Rubin again distinguishes himself by keeping the work’s fluency as paramount, not indulging in an overt exhibition of skill in handling its difficulties.

I suppose the intention of this re-release was to summon up the memory of a fine singer who gave a good deal to this country through his teaching and the exercise of his skills.  We have few enough records of English’s years in Australia; this disc is a happy demonstration of his craft in a field where he shone – not eclipsing his peers, but standing in their front rank.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

April Diary

Wednesday April 1

SERIOUS BUSINESS – AN APRIL FOOLS DAY CONCERT

Conservatorium of Music, Griffith University

Ian Hanger Recital Hall, Queensland Conservatorium at 1:05

What passes for an April Fool north of the Tweed?   This concert may hold the answer.  On the other hand, it could be a simple-minded come-on from a latter-day advertising sad sack; it could be just a few smart young people from the Con using the day’s nickname as a fulcrum for the title of their musical exercise.   Whatever the case, students from the Conservatorium are presenting a program of well-known japes.  Among these are Haydn’s Joke String Quartet Op. 33 No. 2 in E flat where the humour is both broad and refined; Mozart is necessarily represented by his A Musical Joke sextet for two horns and string quartet in which the best of the laughs are formal; Beethoven used the same instruments as Mozart for his three-movement  Horn Sextet Op. 81b.   And that fills out the great Classical trinity’s essays at raising levity, even though few of us know the last of these and are unaware of its relationship to the  April Fool theme.   To end, we get Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, that great 14-movement compendium of inspired effects which may be given in its original scoring for two pianos, string quintet, flute, clarinet, glass harmonica and xylophone.   Or maybe not.   Whatever comes up on the day, the organizers have it right: getting through this program is going to be a serious concern for the players, no matter how much we are entertained.

 

Thursday April 2

COMPASSION

Camerata

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7 pm

At this first concert for the year from Brisbane’s chamber orchestra, the focus will fall on a well-travelled collaboration between Nigel Westlake and Lior which gives this concert its title.   I first heard this local equivalent to The Song of the Earth about six years ago in the Sidney Myer Music Bowl; it’s a fine vehicle for the singer (as far as I can work out, he has taken part in every performance since the first one in 2013) who performs tonight, and a very accessible work that carries its philosophical and humanitarian burdens lightly.   While it exists in two versions, you’d anticipate that Camerata will perform the later one that eschews the original large orchestra scoring for the reduced forces of string quartet, double bass, piano and percussion as a background for the tenor’s keening line.   Artistic director Brendan Joyce opens the night with Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge in one of its string orchestra manifestations.   Before the short La Oracion del torero by Turina, presumably in its 1926 string orchestra raiment, we hear the equally brief Echorus for Two Violins and String Orchestra by Phillip Glass, a reworking of the composer’s Etude No. 2.    A 1967 poem by Ginsberg, Wales Visitation, goes with the music and it will be read by local actor Barbara Lowing.   This composite is somehow a tribute to Yehudi Menuhin who might have been nonplussed by the score which is, as usual, an exploration of a simple arpeggio.

 

Friday April 3

MOZART’S JUPITER

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 11 am

Last month, the young musicians of Griffith University’s Conservatorium of Music had their say on Mozart’s last symphony; today, the state’s top professionals have their way with it.   Conductor Alexandre Bloch is in charge; getting on for 35 years old, he has conducted the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (2016) and the Australian Youth Orchestra (2014).   Now he comes to Brisbane to direct the great C Major symphony.   He begins this matinee with more Mozart: the Don Giovanni Overture with its composer-supplied concert ending.   In pride of place comes soprano Emma Pearson to sing the solo line in Les Illuminations by Britten – another child prodigy, if not as flashy a one as Mozart.  Thanks to Peter Pears, many people forget that the cycle – settings of Rimbaud – was originally written for the female voice and the few times I’ve come across it in live performance over recent years, sopranos have done the honours.  The work is brilliant in its melodic sweep and mastery of string orchestral writing.   No, it’s not profound or mentally challenging, but neither is the poetry.   As with a fair amount of music by the British composer, you do best to be content with its splendid surface.

This program will be repeated on Saturday April 4 at 7:30 pm at which the Don Giovanni Overture will be replaced by Schubert’s B minor and Unfinished Symphony.

 

Friday April 3

SEEN BUT NOT HER

Muses Trio and Vulcana

Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse at 7:30 pm

A collaboration between two organizations, this event is a performance that will ‘celebrate women being heard and taking up space’.  As all the performers are female, that shouldn’t be too difficult to carry out.   As far as the musical component goes, this will be provided by the Muses Trio: violin Christa Powell, cello Louise King, piano Therese Milanovic; an ensemble that has made an intentional choice to promote music by women composers.  There’s no indication as to what music will be played, however. But the more overtly physical component of this music theatre entertainment comes from Vulcana Circus, an organization that also seems to concentrate on expanding and exposing the talents of female artists.   It all sounds like a version of the sort of concept that we have seen in the past from the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Circa, although this latter collaboration finds its musical sources in more reactionary reaches.   You’d hope that the evening’s necessary polemic is tempered to a finer edge than the night’s title which probably seemed clever at the planning stage.   Seen But Not Her lasts for 50 minutes.

 

Wednesday April 8

Goldner String Quartet & Piers Lane

Queensland Conservatorium Theatre at 7 pm

As with Garrick Ohlsson’s Musica Viva appearances, there are two programs on offer for this latest in the organization’s international series.   The venerable Sydney quartet and expatriate pianist Lane are collaborating in three piano quintets across both programs: Brahms in F minor,  Korngold in E Major, and Elgar in A minor from the remarkably fecund (for the composer) year of 1918.   The artists have recorded the Korngold (2018) and the Elgar (2010), so the performances ought to be exemplary.   Brisbane gets to hear only the British work.   As well, the Goldners trot out that hoary chestnut, Dvorak in F Major Op. 96 from the American years.   But, as a balance, they will premiere a new String Quartet No. 1 by Adelaide composer  Jakub Jankowski; in fact, this will be its third hearing, after Sydney and Perth.   I’ve had no exposure to this composer’s work, as far as I can tell, but am intrigued by the title that the Musica Viva promotional material gives to this quartet: Kairos.   Which means the proper time: not the correct tempo, but the suitable or appropriate moment.   Granted, that’s old-time Greek; in my family, we use the word to talk about the weather.

 

Wednesday April 15

Leanne Jin

Ian Hanger Recital Hall, Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University at 7:30 pm

This musician is currently studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and has a string of awards to her name, including last year’s Lev Vlassenko, the Sydney Eisteddfod Kawai Piano Scholarship and the Sydney Conservatorium Piano Concerto Competition. She has won places at competitions in Vienna and New York, but you have to work hard to find out about her repertoire.    A few concertos: she has fronted the Prokofiev No. 1 and Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, while only last month, she was soloist in Beethoven’s E flat Emperor in Chatswood, Sydney.   As for recital material, two years ago she was playing Haydn’s E flat Sonata Hob. XVI/49, Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2, Liszt’s Paganini Etude No. 2 from the S. 140 collection of six,  Falla’s Four Spanish Pieces, Beethoven’s Sonata in B flat Op. 22 (the one that featured in Garrick Ohlsson’s recent Musica Viva recital), and Schumann’s Kreisleriana.    She’s presenting Scarlatti, Haydn and Rachmaninov on April 28 at the Camberwell Uniting Church in Melbourne, so you might guess that those three composers will feature on tonight’s bill of fare.  Exactly what Jinn will present remains up in the air – a normal state of affairs with these Conservatorium recital programs.    It’s as though you’re expected to come along on trust and be happy with the music that  is served up.   Whatever we do hear, you can be pretty sure it won’t be too adventurous.

 

Sunday April 19

BEETHOVEN, ROSSINI AND WEBER

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio at 3 pm

Here is the second in the QSO’s somewhat checkered chamber music recitals in which success is a hit-or-miss affair.   For all that, they’re popular enough, possibly because of the reasonable price of admission.   This afternoon, the Beethoven 250th birthday celebrations continue with a Rasumovsky, the String Quartet in F op. 59 No. 1 in which the composer gets serious and asks his chamber music interpreters to work hard.    The lucky winners here are violins Alan Smith and Jane Burroughs, viola Nicholas Tomkin and cello Andre Duthoit.   The other major work is Weber’s Trio in G minor for flute (Alison Mitchell), bassoon (Nicole Tait, substituting for the original cello)), and piano (Anna Grinberg, who took part in this year’s first QSO chamber music Sunday afternoon program, herbing powerfully through the Brahms Piano Quintet).   On a lighter note, in the middle come arrangements of arias from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville; well, I’m assuming the intended atmosphere will be on the less hefty side, but who can tell?  These arias (and duets, and trios) have been arranged for two bassoons (Tait and Evan Lewis);  probably the transcriptions by Francois Rene Gebauer of which there are 12.    We’ve all got our favourites, even if the best is over by the time the Act 1 curtain falls; here’s hoping we get All’idea di quell metallo and Zitti, zitti, piano, piano.

 

Sunday April 19

WHEN THE WORLD WAS AT WAR

Ensemble Q

Queensland Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University South Bank at 3 pm

When isn’t the world in a state of conflict: Taliban? Daesh? Coronavirus? Brexit?  Nonetheless, this recital has a clear reference to the two world wars, although some of the composers involved were more terribly affected than others.   With regard to World War 1, the Ensemble presents two compositions: Ravel’s remembrance of dead soldier-friends Le tombeau de Couperin (piano solo played by Daniel de Borah, or one of the many arrangements?), and Battle-of-the-Somme sacrifice Frederick Septimus Kelly’s 1915 Elegy in memoriam Rupert Brooke for Strings (presumably Richard Divall’s arrangement for string quintet eschewing the original’s harp).   A victim of a Nazi camp, Erwin Schulhoff wrote his four-movement Concertino for flute, viola and double bass in 1925, before the shadows deepened intolerably.   Another Czech composer, Hans Krasa wrote his Passacaglia and Fugue for string trio in the year of his murder at Auschwitz.   Heinrich Kaminski survived World War II but not by much.  His Quintet for clarinet, horn and string trio dates from 1917, so he sits in this program as a sort of middle-man, straddling the World Wars.   The regular Q Ensemble personnel will host German-Canadian guest violinist Annette-Barbara Vogel

 

Friday April 24

OPERA GALA

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7:30 pm

If there’s no staged opera being offered this late in the year, why not give a greatest hits concert hall selection?    Conductor Giovanni Reggioli has conducted here before, most recently at a similar concert to this one in 2019.    I can’t find out much that is current about his present overseas activities; doubtless he wouldn’t be here unless he had proven his talent.    The concert is a grab-bag, as you’d expect, with four soloists: soprano Emma Pearson, mezzo Bronwyn Douglass, tenor Andrew Goodwin, and bass James Clayton.  The QSO gets to shine in three pieces: the overture to Verdi’s The Sicilian Vespers, the greatest polonaise of all from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, and the Intermezzo from Act 3 of Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz which tears a passion to tatters on the flimsiest of excuses. Mascagni’s opera is notable for this extract as well as the Cherry Duet in Act 2 which we also get to enjoy; the rest of the piece is lost in transition.   As for more Verdi, all the singers come together for the Rigoletto quartet, and Clayton has the last say of the night with Iago’s profession of faith.   Rossini scores with three extracts, all from The Barber of Seville: Figaro’s self-introduction, Rosina’s opening gambit, then the pair’s duet Dunque io son.    As well as the Polonaise, Eugene Onegin is further exposed in Lensky’s Kuda, kuda and the Letter Scene, Puskai pogibnu, that lays bare the marvellous character of Tatyana.   There will be two Mozart excursions: the Countess’s Dove sono from The Marriage of Figaro, and that magical quartet No ti fidar, o misera from Act 1 of Don Giovanni.   The two Gounod slabs are unexceptional: the love duet O nuit d’amour from Act 3 of Faust, and the opportunity for Pearson to sparkle in Juliet’s waltz song,  Je veux vivre.    Saint-Saens and Donizetti are represented by one aria each: for the former, Delilah’s neglected solo Amour! viens aider ma faiblesse, while Goodwin is gifted with Nemorino’s  Una furtiva lagrima from L’elisir d’amore.

About half of this program will be performed on Sunday April 26 at 11:30 am.

 

Tuesday April 28

Umberto Clerici and Daniel de Borah

Ian Hanger Recital Hall, Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University at 7:30 pm

Clerici is principal cello with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and my experience of his work has been exclusively through Selby & Friends recitals where he has put in several fine appearances.   Here he is again in that field, partnered with de Borah from the Conservatorium’s staff.    This pianist also has been to my ears a chamber music performer.   From the sketchy details on the concert diary of the Conservatorium, I learn that the pair will play sonatas by Chopin and Mendelssohn.   You’d assume that the Polish composer would be represented by his G minor Cello Sonata.   And you’d be right.  Fortunately, more specific information can be found on de Borah’s website.   Of the two Mendelssohn possibilities, the duo are presenting No. 2 in D Major.   By way of introduction to the proceedings, they will also perform Mendelssohn’s Op. 109 Song Without Words.   Half way through the recital, they intend to play some ‘songs without words’ by Chopin, referring specifically to the composer’s Opus 74.   This work, you’d have to assume, is the composer’s 17 Polish Songs; I’m almost ready to guarantee that Clerici will play the vocal line, not sing it wordlessly.   The scheduled No. 8 ‘song without words’ is indeed in D Major – that finger-snapping hit, Sliczny chlopiec; No. 9 is, however, not in G Major, as the web-site has it, but a Melodia in E minor.

 

 

Unknown Handel, some of it

BEYOND MESSIAH

Brisbane Chamber Choir

St. John’s Anglican Cathedral

Sunday March 8

St. John's

                                                       St. John’s Anglican Cathedral

You can’t fault the idea behind this concert: to expand our experience of Handel as more than just the composer of the most famous oratorio in Western music.   You would have expected Graeme Morton‘s choir to provide the bulk of this 75-minute entertainment – and so they did with nine works, the last two of them unexpected because very popular, even if neither of them has anything to do with Messiah.   But Sunday afternoon also included two soprano arias – one of them that famous Handel hit, Let the bright Seraphim – plus an organ concerto and a concerto grosso from the famous Op. 6 set; well, not the whole of The Cuckoo and the Nightingale but just the opening Larghetto and Allegro  .  .  .  and not the complete No. 11 concerto, more’s the pity  –  only the opening Andante larghetto e staccato and its pendant Allegro.

When the choristers emerged, they reminded me in size of Melbourne’s Ensemble Gombert, a group I’ve been listening to with admiration for many years.   Like the Gomberts, the Brisbane group numbered about 19 singers – although one of the more ridiculously irritating questions of the afternoon concerned a missing singer.  Twenty were credited in the program; by my deduction, 5 sopranos and 5 altos, 6 tenors and 4 basses.   As far as I could judge, there was indeed a bass quartet, imbalanced by 7 tenors.  The sopranos numbered 4, as did the altos, although one of the altos sang that famous soprano aria but stood among the altos.

Of course, if the performance itself is engrossing, problems like this fade into the background.   The fundamental difficulty with this Handel compendium was that it was being given in the wrong building.   As cathedrals go, St. John’s is not particularly large (long) but it has a high ceiling which means that a lot of air space has to be filled.  Morton’s singers sounded much too faint and underpowered for this program and, when the parts subdivided, the output was dissipated even more than in a normal SATB setting.    Their supporting orchestra was populated mainly by Queensland Symphony Orchestra personnel: the associate concertmaster Alan Smith led a string decet in which everybody was a QSO regular except violinist Iona Allan and violist Belinda Williams who has played in past years with the orchestra.    Both oboes came from the QSO corps, and the solitary brass player, Michael Whitaker on trumpet, is a freelance musician of excellent quality.   But even this small chamber-size ensemble proved too powerful for the choir.

Of course, the building’s acoustic would be eminently suitable and flattering for a cappella singing, atmospherically suggestive to a high degree during major services and Evensong.  But it was hard weather for all concerned trying to make a fair showing of Handel’s pages, even the more harmonically bald ones.    Your voices tune that concludes the ode Alexander’s Feast opened the afternoon’s first of four sections: In Praise of Music.  Nothing here to frighten the fishes – a fair number of high As for the sopranos and a solitary B flat, but otherwise the work is not taxing.   Unfortunately, only sopranos and tenors were perceptible throughout.   Things might have been even more difficult if the two horns that are meant to join in the mesh at Let’s imitate her notes above had been present; as it was, we settled in for a lopsided sound where the cathedral’s echo distracted from the score’s rapid-moving clarity.   Still, the orchestral fabric sounded exact and engaging.

One of the program’s two Solomon extracts – the chorus Music, spread thy voice around – began without a solo alto, I believe; not that it mattered because the output in this quiet movement was reassuring with regard to the choir’s linear integrity although once again the basses failed to impress.    Soprano Cheryl Fiedler made a straightforward attempt at the famous Samson aria although her interpretation was pretty unvarnished in terms of personality, but Morton whipped through the aria without finding space for any of those pesky fermate that most singers love to interpolate.   Whitaker’s trumpet obbligato, despite the best intentions of the player, dominated the voice in duets; unfortunately, in the last echo effect sequence in the words their loud, Fiedler began with a leap of a 5th instead of a 4th – which wouldn’t have mattered except for the trumpet’s necessary duplication of what she should have sung.

You missed out on some necessary bite during the final Samson chorus, Let their celestial concerts.   Not only bite but some dynamic oomph would have been of great benefit here, although you have to wonder what the outcome would have been if the original’s second trumpet and timpani had been brought in to the complex.   After this, the movements from Handel’s A Major Concerto grosso proved an amiable interlude, well-balanced and notable for a spirited solo contribution from leader Smith.

The briefer second division of this program, In Praise of the Divine, comprised two choruses, both from Judas Maccabeus: the near-the-end Sing unto God, and the concluding Hallelujah, Amen.   Both ask for three trumpets and timpani, as well as the ever-present oboe pair.   Again, in jubilant works like these, you need a sonorous, carrying choral sound and the requisite majestic power came through only sporadically.  As well, I missed the alto and tenor soloists at the start of the first of these works.  Division Three,   In Praise of Love, began with May no rash intruder (the second Solomon excerpt) which suited the muted choral output even as the sopranos were divided, although the whole could have been given appropriate colour if Handel’s two flutes had appeared.   The second aria soloist, soprano Elodie Geertsema, worked her way through Endless pleasure, endless love from Semele.   Like Fielder’s, this is a good voice best heard as a choir member rather than being asked to project an oratorio/operatic character.  The process here became something of a trial as the singer carefully negotiated the technical hurdles; an effort, not reassuringly secure.

Mourn, all ye muses from that odd masque/opera/oratorio Acis and Galatea (the heroine’s name given an odd pronunciation by the chorister who read an introduction to this segment) came across with some sensitivity to its context, although a change of texture – some crescendo/diminuendo phrasing – would have been welcome.   The split tenor line could have contributed to the textural smoothness of this small chorus.   Phillip Gearing, organist and choir director round the corner at St. Mary’s, Kangaroo Point, played half the F Major Concerto on a chamber instrument that the Brisbane Chamber Choir gifted last year to the cathedral; a handsome and suitable offering as an alternative to the building’s impressive W. J. Simon Pierce main instrument.   The smaller organ, also by Pierce, has five stops only, so Gearing was constrained in his operations.   You might have wished for maximum volume in the first movement where the soloist was not really in competition with his string escort.   Nevertheless, the work’s chirpy first Allegro succeeded markedly, the elegant passage work from the soloist a welcome pleasure.

Finally, In Praise of the Hero took to the mainstream with two choruses familiar to everybody, not just Handel lovers.    See, the conqu’ring hero comes from the oratorio Judas Maccabeus has always impressed me as the British answer to America’s Hail to the Chief, even if the brassy President’s theme song has become debased by its association with liars and charlatans.   The Handel piece opens with 2 soprano and 2 alto lines, moves to 2 sopranos before the eruption into SATB and a full orchestral accompaniment.  In Sunday’s arrangement, the hard-worked Whitaker and Gearing gave an instrumental backing before the full orchestra entered, minus Handel’s two horns.   But this was one of the program’s more successful events as the interpretation boasted some of the brio and flourish (if they’re not the same thing) of the original composition.

Sadly, the afternoon ended with the Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest,  this reading unhappy from the outset as the orchestral ritornello was dominated by the oboes’ repeated quavers above the first violins’ scene-setting semiquaver arpeggios.   The original two bassoons were absent, as were the requisite two extra trumpets and timpani needed for the thrilling sonorous explosion when the choir enters.   But here the choral forces were not sufficiently strong in volume and forcefulness to give these all-too-well-known pages enough affirming power.  Even the tension-relieving change to 3/4 at And all the people rejoic’d sounded uninspired.  But I believe that the most taxing hurdle that the singers had to face was their sub-division into 7 lines – except for the body’s most populous entity, the tenors!

Did the exercise reveal much of the unknown Handel to us?   Well, yes and no.  We really know a good deal of the composer’s work because a large amount of it has public currency.    Both the solo arias, not just Let the bright Seraphim, are familiar; that particular organ concerto and that specific concerto grosso feature among the more frequently performed numbers in Chrysander’s catalogue; as for the Samson choruses, if you know any one of them, it’s Let their celestial concerts; Zadok and See, the conqu’ring hero are Handelian cliches.   So a touch over half of the 13 elements on this program are not in need of resuscitation; nor did they expose any unrevealed parts of the Handel canon.   Nevertheless, as a tour d’horizon where you were given a varied selection, this program fulfilled its intentions.  Both the choir and its able scratch orchestra deserve thanks, particularly for giving exposure to some relatively arcane offerings.   It’s just a pity that this event had to be relocated from its original venue  –  St. Andrew’s Uniting Church, a few doors down Ann Street  –  which might have proved a more congenial environment for this strong-boned music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still top of the class

GARRICK OHLSSON

Queensland Conservatorium Theatre

Thursday February 27

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                                                                  Garrick Ohlsson

It’s great to have your preconceptions confirmed.  I’ve been lucky enough to attend most of this American musician’s Melbourne recitals since he started touring Australia and here he is once more, thanks to the good graces of Musica Viva Australia, which organization chose Ohlsson to open its international concert season for 2020.  You can look at the other artists to come in this series  –  Piers Lane and the Goldner String Quartet, the Cho-Ling/Parker duo, Les Talens Lyriques (but let’s not boast), Diana Doherty and the Eggner Trio back again, the Goldmund Quartet who won the last Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition, and the San Franciscan vocal dodecad Chanticleer – but you could be excused for thinking that the best wine has been served first.

With Ohlsson, you enjoy that all-too-rare performance element: complete trust.  On Thursday evening, the opening pages of Beethoven came over with just as much individuality and command as the final piece I heard –  a Chopin encore.  Confidence in craft practice is not that rare; these days, we expect a musician to be technically close to flawless in live performance and a great many concerts and recitals justify our confidence.  What you don’t get as  matter of course is interpretative skill where the player invests  each phrase with informed character.   Yes, you can come across other pianists with loads of personality; Bernstein as a pianist fell into this category, for instance – not all show, but example after example of attention-grabbing.   The  gift of taking you into a musical narrative or stream and not letting go: that’s very rare.   Several big names on the international scene that I’ve heard spring to mind as coming close to the ideal – Paul Lewis, Stephen Hough, Marc-Andre Hamelin – but very few have this power of demanding involvement.   Nikolai Demidenko is one; Ohlsson, another.

The visitor offered two programs on his Australian tour, the alternative one comprising Brahms (the Two Rhapsodies, the late Seven Fantasias and Book 2 of the Paganini Variations) coupled with Chopin’s Nocturne No. 1 and last Sonata in B minor.   Program 2 featured two sonatas – Beethoven No. 11 in B flat and Prokofiev No. 6 – with a post-interval Chopin swag involving the F sharp Impromptu, the Berceuse, the third Scherzo, and Etudes 5-10 of the Opus 25 set.   Ohlsson had already performed this melange in Sydney, Perth and Melbourne (and probably elsewhere, for all I know), and he has recorded all of it except the Russian work.

For my money, the Beethoven Op. 11 Sonata is imbalanced, the real interest arriving in the last movement, a rondo combining muted optimism and a richness of material that even Mozart would have envied.   However, even in the preceding parts Ohlsson demonstrated his ability at finding striking novelties, like the powerful bass notes in bars 50-52, an unfalteringly loud delivery of the arpeggios in the development’s centre from bar 92 onward, and the balancing calm of the left-hand progression to the recapitulation.  The following Adagio, with its siciliana suggestions, illustrated the pianist’s ability in handling rough surfaces like the repeated left hand chords and pedal notes, which other interpreters attempt to mitigate in insistence.   Later, in the Minore Trio of the third movement, all 16 bars were handled with forte energy, ensuring that the surrounding segments acquired an added charm and warmth.

But the final movement gave us an extended instance of Ohlsson’s adroit mastery of Beethoven’s composition where the fluency of imagination shows as tautly harnessed and brimming with potential.   The recurring theme is eventually infused into the structure and it takes a highly informed perceptiveness to cross through its content without hammering the obvious.  Through these pages, the interpretation moved onto a high level where phrases seemed to arc naturally and the filigree sounded unflustered and organic.

At the unforgettable opening to Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6, Ohlsson maintained the major-minor tension through a dynamic attack that remained sensibly couched so that the harmonic clashes sounded present and clear, presenting in its later complex working-out a full realisation of the composer’s violent, dogged emotional landscape that stays fraught even in light-textured staccato interludes.   Not that you can avoid the smash-and-grab character of the final pages but Ohlsson kept his sustaining pedal under careful control, ensuring that any sound wash couldn’t turn into a meaningless blur.

The second movement Allegretto brings to mind the ballets (for instance, the warm stream from bar 5 through to the a tempo marking) with its clear-cut melodies given a wrong-note dressing; while you took in the clarity of execution, the movement’s legerdemain reminded you of what a formidable pianist Prokofiev was.   Likewise, the following slow waltz – like the preceding Beethoven’s slow movement, a quasi-siciliana in 9/8 – called up the shade of Juliet; not surprising, as this work and the ballet are near-contemporaries.  Here also, Ohlsson delighted with his insight into the composer’s brilliantly contrived textures, leading the listener through the lavish sequence of slightly-tainted concords that peak in a rousing B Major peroration.

Prokofiev’s finale begins as a cross between a moto perpetuo and a march, not quite optimistic but mobile enough; slight in its matter and balancing the first movement’s clangour.   That is, until the writer brings the work’s opening motif back in an Andante break from the march – a brief if gloomy hiatus before the semi-quavers return and the work slashes a grinding path to its in-my-end-is-my-beginning last bars.   Along this journey, Ohlsson gifted us with a formidable reading, accomplished with no attention-grabbing dramatics, not even in the col pugno first movement smashes; rather, we enjoyed a luminous outline of the work, all its pianistic terrors handled with sensibility and masterly flair.

As for this night’s Chopin pieces, the Impromptu No. 2 is a vital window into the composer’s creative fecundity, giving the impression of near-improvisation but every addition and deviation has been ideally situated.   I was hugely impressed by the executant’s realisation of the long demi-semiquaver figuration that precedes the last 10 remembrance-of-things-past bars;  a gripping demonstration of how to find placidity in a mobile sound-web.  The six Etudes achieved their end of exhibiting the player’s control of Chopin’s several technical tests, but here invested with personality – especially the No 6 exercise in 3rds and its counterweight in No. 8’s demand for even consecutive 6ths.   Still, what lives in the memory is Ohlsson’s commanding double octave hectoring in No. 10 with a superb performance of the final six bars where the energy reaches its climax as the octaves fly in opposite directions: an enlightening conclusion to a reading that managed to juxtapose successfully a rough assault with that sophistication you find in the best interpreters of this composer’s most aggressive pages.

As you’d expect, the Berceuse enjoyed a gentle dynamic; even the moment of deepest passion at bar 23 came across as integral to the prevailing pianopianissimo approach.  And the sequences of thirds, triplet semiquaver chords, delicate use of C flat as the piece heads into its final variations – all impressed for their contributions to this interpretation’s fluency.   Finally, Ohlsson outlined one of those works that keeps every pianist striving: the C sharp Scherzo.   For much of its length, this was a master-class in rubato.   Nothing was rushed or thrown away as the performer gave full value to the volatile flights that are dotted throughout the score in profusion.   It had the lot: virtuoso right-hand streams, eloquent chorales and their tail-ending chattering arpeggio patterns, driving rhetoric in double octaves, and a gripping stretto that made you hold your breath with tension.

I don’t usually stick around for encores; if the performer has done his job, there’s no need.   But I stayed this time for a refresher course in Rachmaninov’s Op. 3 C sharp minor Prelude – no wonder the composer got sick of it, especially when you consider the gems to be found in the Op.  23 and Op. 43 sets – and a busily whimsical version of Chopin’s Minute Waltz in D flat.   Icing on the cake, some might think; to me, a case of gimme-that-old-time-religion audience reassurance.

 

Graeco-Roman bout

BEETHOVEN AND BRAHMS

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, Russell St., South Brisbane

Sunday February 23

grinberg2

                                                                     Anna Grinberg

Opening this year’s series of recitals, the Chamber Players of the QSO presented a lop-sided hour-and-a-bit’s music on Sunday afternoon, played to a large audience that showed excitement and enthusiasm for the main work: the mighty Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor.  As A prelude, we heard Beethoven’s Wind Sextet in E flat, Op. 71 although that number is an inaccuracy if you’re expecting a score to come from the era of the Ghost Piano Trio, the Emperor Concerto and Fidelio.  This sextet comes from 1796, the time of the first two cello sonatas and the Piano Sonata No. 4 in E flat.

To be honest, this sextet is pretty unremarkable with only a few bursts of action for  the first clarinet and the leading horn to raise your temperature level.   Perhaps more gripping material will follow later as the orchestra observes Beethoven’s 250 birthday.  At the next chamber recital in April, the program contains the first of the Rasumovsky string quartets; in the following month Guy Braunstein, once the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster. is soloist and conductor for the Violin Concerto which he brings a few days later to the Gold Coast, along with the Coriolan Overture and the Romance in F arranged for flute rather than violin soloist.   During June, the orchestra takes this Romance arrangement and the Symphony No. 7 to Toowoomba and airs the Egmont Overture back in QPAC.

August has Simone Young conducting the Choral Symphony and supporting Jan Lisiecki‘s efforts in the G Major Piano Concerto.   October sees three performances of the Symphony No. 5 over two days, and the next month concludes the celebrations with the Piano Concerto No. 5 featuring the estimable Behzod Abduraimov as soloist.   So, the observance is respectable but not over the top: three of the landmark symphonies, the last two piano concertos, the Violin Concerto, an early string quartet, two overtures and a romance in unoriginal format.  But first  this divertimento sextet, which was preceded by Beethoven’s only other piece for the combination of clarinets, bassoons and horns: the March in B flat WoO 29. which lasts barely 90 seconds.

Involved in the sextet performance were three principals – Brian Catchlove (Acting Associate Clarinet), David Mitchell (Associate Bassoon), and Alex Miller (Associate Horn) – with three regulars in Kate Travers (clarinet), Evan Lewis  (bassoon) and Lauren Manuel (horn).   Their ensemble work proved to be functional, generally accurate, fairly rough in balance.   The work is not taxing but it has some rapid semiquaver runs to pepper up its benign breezy warmth.   Catchlove did not seem secure in the 2 1/2-octave scale passage that brightens the first movement Exposition; more persuasive work came in the lead-up to the pre-Recapitulation fermata where we were treated to an unexpected, just-long-enough cadenza.   The second horn line experiences a couple of arpeggio-rich bars near the Allegro‘s conclusion and these were close to error-free; like the playing itself, the product was rough around the edges.

When the clarinets enunciated the principal melody of the following Adagio, the duet work  failed to satisfy after an empathetic statement from Mitchell; Catchlove and Travers sounded unmatched working at the octave so that, although the intonation impressed as accurate and clean, the timbral combination lacked mutual warmth.  I didn’t understand why the group slowed down the pace for the Scherzo‘s Trio; it’s common practice, I know, but you really have to suit the tempo to music that is worth lingering over.  Sadly, the horns were over-prominent in the outer sections – or possibly we relished their absence from the Trio‘s action.   This beefiness from the brass figured again in the finale where the clarinet melody line was drowned in the opening bar’s output.  Miller’s burbling triplets spiced up the action in the first episode.  But the balance problem emerged as this performance’s major shortfall; the sextet may be early Beethoven but this heady, bull-at-a-gate mode of attack does little service to a structure that has good bones if little meat.

You could say much the same about the Brahms’ treatment where the outer movements rose to high points of weighty dynamic output but ended in beating the audience around its collective head with an excess of punch.   Anna Grinsberg took up the piano cudgels for this mighty score.   She was joined by first violins Warwick Adeney (Concertmaster) and Shane Chen (Principal), viola Bernard Hoey, and cello Hyung Suk Bae (Associate Principal) in a reading that seemed to work hard to convince you of the composer’s struggle in shaping his material, but made an overall impression of jumping from one from one bear hug to the next, a chain of force-filled grapplings.

The group repeated the Exposition to Brahms’ first movement and it was quickly obvious that Grinberg was in control – which some say is a necessary positioning for the pianist in this work.   The repeat was, in fact, well worth the time as the musicians showed more group awareness, both violins ramping up their lines’ vehemence and pressure.   Then, the recoil at Letter A into more sentimental material proved effective, possibly as sheer relief from the previous dynamic pressure-cooker.   Adeney sounded cautious during his exposed 8-bar solo at the Development’s opening but he was not alone in handling these complex pages without assurance.   By the time of the return to taws at bar 172, it sounded as if the interpretation was being driven by its inbuilt impetus rather than by a fully determined plan.

After an eloquent and long statement from Grinberg to open the moving Andante second movement, you might have anticipated a similar warmth when the strings eventually had their turn with the gently swelling second theme at bar 26 but the Chen/Adeney partnership gained in warmth only some time further along when the action became more intense.   It was at this stage of the reading that you became aware of Hyung’s unflappable presence, sustaining the cello line without the same sweeping and swooping as obtained in the upper reaches of the group.   Actually, this movement entire would have benefited from a more lingering approach, less anxiety about getting through its finely dovetailed segments.  From previous experience, you expect an emotional benison to be brought about through the crowded 6ths and 3rds of the final bars; not so this time, because sufficient care and tenderness was lacking in those simple three-note phrases.

With the Scherzo, once more the impression was of over-exertion – in this instance, applied very early at the first fortissimo starting at bar 22 and maintained for some time with the added thrill of several sforzandi.   After this card reveal, the players had little space to negotiate, missing out on the detached brilliance that should counter any preceding mobile brooding from bar 57, and their lead-up to the C Major Trio proved to be a thundering welter, the piano disappearing in the last pages of the Scherzo repeat. What we heard was packed with splash but lacking in subtlety.

Grinberg took over in the Allegro non troppo finale at the point where her doubling action becomes all-encompassing at Letter A.   Matters got even more intense in the thundering octave triplets at bar 137 where the temptation to belt and thump out the notes has to be resisted.   Yes, you had your hiatus points, and very welcome they were, like the un pochettino piu animato interlude for exposed strings, and that antiphonal/responsorial relief at Letter E lasting up to bar 237.  But the performers  once again moved through such passages with little grace, in a hurry to gt to the meaty full-bodied passages where the keyboard could pound and the strings could force their unisons and octaves into dominance of a kind.

You have to make allowances: these musicians are not accustomed to playing in the groups set up for the QSO’s Sunday chamber music series.  Their bread and butter is orchestral work, not this kind of exposed linear interplay.  And, as I found in Melbourne, rehearsal time is limited and musicians have to rely on their peers’ extra-orchestral experience and honed intuition in handling this music.  As I wrote above, the large Studio audience for the event gave a warm response to this Brahms interpretation and, at the end, all performers/competitors were left standing  –  as was the composer.   Yet, to me, it all came down to that well-worn report card summation: could do better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many points of pleasure

BEETHOVEN 1, 2 & 3

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday February 17 at 7 pm

beethoven-1805-us-pd

 

The observances across this year of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth are bound to be many and varied, yet I suspect that few will cause as much interest as this concentrated dose of the composer’s symphonic output.   Later in 2020, at various venues, members of the ACO will play the String Quintet in C minor, the Kreutzer Sonata arranged for string quintet (why?), all the cello sonatas, the Cavatina from the Op. 130 String Quartet arranged for string orchestra, the first movement of the Op. 18 C minor String Quartet in its original form, Movement 3 from the A minor String Quartet for string orchestra, and the Grosse Fuge  –  one of the ensemble’s calling cards.

To perform the first three symphonies, Richard Tognetti (celebrating 30 years at the artistic directorial helm of the ACO) and his 17 core musicians were joined by 14 extra strings, all members of the Australian National Academy of Music, and 13 wind players of mixed provenances, with the inevitable Brian Dixon on timpani.   An ad hoc combination, then, if one calculated to give us an aural experience in line with Beethoven’s own auditory experience, the string instruments using gut and the wind employing period instruments, ensuring that the orchestral families sounded balanced.   Fine in theory, except that these three performances were dominated by the first violins.  As it should be?  Perhaps.

Needless to say – but I will – the readings were exhilarating throughout each of the twelve movements, the musicians making the most of every opportunity, both written and unwritten, to highlight or underline dynamic contrasts and to confront the score with an energetic response at every turn.   Mind you, by this stage of the organization’s national tour, the ACO/ANAM/guests’ readings had reached a point where they were as good as they were going to be with eight almost-consecutive preceding performances on the trot, Brisbane the last port of call.   Which probably explain Tognetti’s insistence at the end of the Eroica in going round the band, congratulating/thanking each participant; a well-deserved recognition for a sustained professional mini-odyssey.

While the E flat Symphony No. 3 is a repertory warhorse, battle-scarred from two-plus centuries of usage both good and bad, the first two symphonies are rarely aired by state orchestras, who are ever eager to take up the public’s reliable investment in the well-worn and familiar.   And I think some of us would have gained the main benefit of this exercise through experiencing live, vivid performances of these two remarkable constructs rather than by waiting to see what interpretative quirks peppered the night’s final offering.

For a thoroughly worked-in concert, this occasion did not begin well, the opening movement’s pizzicato chords in the Symphony No. 1 given scatter-gun treatment until the third one reached a requisite level of congruence.   The remainder of the Adagio introduction worked to better effect before the first violins rattled into the Allegro proper, its first subject setting up the night’s modus operandi with a spiky attack.   The rapid crescendo-decrescendo device was worked heavily inside phrases, and the designated sforzando notes were delivered with a very powerful punch from all string quarters, to the point where succeeding semiquavers tended to be lost.   Further along, you were pressed to work out whether the wind had been taken by surprise or the string corps were champing at the tempo bit; whatever the case, you could sense a discrepancy, a slight lack of uniformity.   With distracting frequency, Tognetti kept turning to the players directly behind him throughout the night – encouraging their efforts, for sure, but also appearing to urge the pace.

Another feature of the string texture, notably in the first two symphonies, was an abstention from vibrato at certain stages, carefully selected hiatus points where the fabric could benefit from a change in timbre.   This made for an attention-focusing version of the Andante to the C Major symphony where, after adjusting to some unusual pitch peculiarities from the upper woodwind, the ensemble gave a perky account of pages that less conscientious bodies stroll through at ambling pace.   Straight away in the third movement, the strings impressed with their short bowing stabs which gave an urgent character to the outer sections.   If you were looking for faults, the only questionable product in these pages came towards the end of the Trio where the violins’ passage work sounded scruffy on the first time through.

The finale’s Adagio opening came across as a splendid, minuscule piece of musical theatre; not so much searching for resolution but consciously teetering on the edge of that infectious break into this work’s light-fingered vivace finale.  Tognetti set a blistering pace for this movement proper, again urging his colleagues onward and achieving a commensurate response from the wind forces, at the same time giving them room to be heard, particularly bassoons Jane Gower and Lisa Goldberg whose gritty sound-colour came through in exposed moments, even if their work involved no solos.

At the slow opening to the D Major Symphony, I was nonplussed by the timbre of oboes Helene Mourot and Lidewei De Sterck which sounded rough-hewn, even for period instruments.   But, by the time we came to the interplay between woodwind and strings at bar 29, the oddity had been evened out, chiefly by the introduction of other wind players.  Once again, the ACO/ANAM string players attacked the first movement Allegro con brio with lashings of piss and vinegar, probably assisted in maintaining their stamina by the absence of an Exposition repeat; they were but passing this way once.   To my ear, one of the most remarkable points of play came in the violin triplets beginning at bar 187: a model of delicacy and restraint in a performance notable for its weltering activity.   It certainly shone when compared with the movement’s last note: a sustained semibreve D which sounded over-aggressive and coarse.

With the following Larghetto, the playing presented  –  for once  –  as slightly affected and dulcet in the extended main melodies, which in fact contrasted tellingly with intermediary passages where the players took to bowing in alternate briskly detached notes and something close to saltando.   Still, the modified reversion beginning from bar 158  demonstrated the ACO’s ability to find new facets to familiar sentences, ensuring that you never felt that these performers were going through the motions, but rather were concerned with re-presenting material with many unexpected shifts in balance and dynamic.

In the second half of the third movement’s outer segments, notes tended to disappear in the violins’ descending scale phrases, but the Trio proved to be hard-hitting and volatile with reliable horn work in the last 14 bars of the second half.   Tognetti led his forces through a break-neck account of the Allegro molto finale, urging his first violins by way of repeated exhibitions to them of the style of attack he required.   Occasionally, this generated sparks, as in several punchy repetitions of the quirky figure that punctuates the movement’s first theme; less often, the concerted string corps sounded hard-pressed, caught in a chugging action.   At certain points, the wind in ensemble work came across as unbalanced  in their handling of the second subject where the strings thin out or offer functional support.   Yet the end result was persuasive, capping a determined and cleverly crafted interpretation.

It is hard to find strikingly new facets to the Eroica.   Performances that emphasize  harmonic shocks or emphasize the thematic brusqueness in each movement have little capacity to raise eyebrows in this jaded age.   Tognetti’s reading found plenty of drama and a vehemence that didn’t teeter over into lurching from one overwrought climax to the next.   Most praiseworthy was an over-arching integrity in delineating each of the four movements’ characteristic shapes, encouraging the sort of consciousness in us listeners of large-scale paragraphs being woven seamlessly together – something along the lines of Furtwangler’s achievement with Bruckner symphonies.   As a responsible director, Tognetti brought a combative drama to the chain of discords starting at bar 180 of the first movement, but he ensured that they grew organically out of the preceding 132 bars.   The reading’s transmission of continuity ensured that this large-scale Allegro con brio kept you engaged across its wide length.

The second movement of this symphony, Beethoven’s funeral march, is a taxing interpretative test, mainly because conductors have to decide on whether or not to stress the score’s potential for pathos.  To my mind, it requires more of a stoic resolve and needs to be taken at a speed which takes just as much notice of the assai as the Adagio in the heading.   Following from several previous stages during this concert, you were startled that Tognetti’s sound made so significant a difference to the upper strings’ effectiveness; when he had settled his forces into the desired performance mode, he played with a carrying timbre that noticeably enriched the band’s output.   Through a combination of sympathy and discipline, the musicians generated a cogent, composite account of this bold expression of controlled grief.

Particularly admirable was the orchestra’s restraint and care with details in the symphony’s third movement/scherzo; the control exercised by all involved up to the half-way point’s fortissimo explosion, coupled with an abstention from a hefty chugging sound continuum, ensured that the success of the score’s first half was repeated.   Later, the three horns grabbed your attention by working through the Trio with no signs of stress that weren’t associated with their instruments’ natural abilities.   The following set of variations that constitute the symphony’s finale offered another high point among several across this concert’s length thanks to a vigorous approach and an ability to weave each variation into the next and to infuse each of them with individuality.

As on previous occasions (not all, but quite a few) when the ACO puts its efforts into treating a solid orchestral Classical/Romantic masterpiece, you came away from this concert with positive reactions.   During the E flat symphony, you could delight in the performers’ unanimity of effort and rich palette of colours.   But just as memorable was the biting address invested in this work’s two predecessors.   Yes, we will be treated to more large-scale Beethoven over this year from other organizations and ensembles, but the memory of this event will be lasting and its level of accomplishment could remain our benchmark for the remaining ten months of celebrations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time present and time past

MUSIC FROM 4 TO 40 PARTS

Vaughan McAlley

Move Records MD 3437

3437

I’ve been watching and hearing tenor Vaughan McAlley sing for the past 200 years, as a member of groups like the Ensemble Gombert and the Choir of the Collins St. Scots’ Church, as well as observing him cope with roles as hefty as Bach’s Evangelists.  He has also been a long-time producer and sound engineer for Move Records.  But I believe that this CD represents my first experience of his work as a composer; it contains a large number of those compositions ascribed to him on the Australian Music Centre’s web-site.

Most of the music is vocal/choral with relieving forays into part of McAlley’s String Quartet of 2015 and the complete Four Chorale Preludes for Piano, written for Michael Kieran Harvey.   While the majority of this CD’s non-instrumental  tracks comprise a cappella singing, a few involve some slight instrumental support – a recorder here, a string quartet there.   On paper, it looks like a considerable miscellany; in actuality, the disc’s totality represents a backward move – some centuries back, in fact.

The first offering is a setting for 5 voices of Christina Rossetti’s A Birthday, written for the wedding of Kate McBride and Tom Reid who take top and bottom lines respectively in this work.  We are plunged into the world of Renaissance polyphony which suggests both English madrigals and something more Continental  –  not Josquin, as McAlley’s annotation implies, but something further south.  It’s a well accomplished composition, with loads of vocal mobility; it’s just that it seems odd  –  a Tudor soundscape to underpin a Romantic poem.

Track 2 is A Madrigal, which uses words by Alexander Pope that have been set by a more well-known composer.  Where’er you walk is written for 4 voices and is another piece that straddles several practices and schools.  By now, you become aware of a tendency in the composer’s writing to give great exposure to his soprano or top line, sometimes suggestive of Allegri stratospherics.   Again, the polyphony is efficient and the standard of performance competent; which you’d expect with the composer being one of the participants.

To Rosamounde, a balade uses a Chaucer text, setting for 8 voices one of the poem’s three stanzas.   This work, full-bodied in character and one of the disc’s most two monumental constructs, is performed by the Ensemble Gombert conducted by John O’Donnell and it brings back memories of that group’s richly rewarding recitals held at Xavier College Chapel for many years.  The stanza octet is set lucidly with both the linear meshing and the interplay sensible, utilising compositional devices with admirable facility.  McAlley has added an optional extra, a coda for 18 voices to the last line, Thogh ye to me ne do no daliaunce, which is suggestive of Monteverdi, the Gabrielis, and  –  of course  –  Tallis.  At this multiphonic point, the words become meaningless because the vocal complex becomes an end in itself.  The effect is sumptuous, the massive piling up of individual voices most impressive to aurally bathe in.   My only difficulty is that the setting loses its link with the English poet’s chirpy teasing.

The chorale preludes in Harvey’s hands are a delight.  There is no way a contemporary composer dealing in this form can avoid the shadow of Bach and McAlley makes no attempt to do so.   The first essay takes the melody of Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit and puts it in the centre of a contrapuntal web, weaving a soprano line in triplets and a solid bass that begins in measured pace but then enters more fully into the action, taking over the soprano triplets to underpin the complex; the work comes to a broad, Busoni-like conclusion   The melody is at the top for Allein Gott in der Hoh’ sei Ehr’ with a quirky five-note motif dodging around the entire keyboard’s range and offering a jerky complement to the simple melody line.   Heilig, heilig, heilig also keeps the chorale tune in the soprano, while underneath is a susurrus of arpeggios that bring to mind a Chopin study or six, as well as Schumann’s Widmung.    O Lamm Gottes unschuldig has the tune in a soprano-tenor canon within a slow repeated chord backdrop.  McAlley concludes this piece with a fugue and the hymn tune floating above/inside it, which strikes me as a reflection of the opening chorus to the St, Matthew Passion where the children singers come in with this same tune above the ferment of Komm, ihr Tochter.

Harvey invest his wide-ranging sympathy and superlative technique into these works, handling the splayed chord moments carefully but maintaining each prelude’s forward motion and realising the appealing gravity in three of the four.   My references to Busoni and the others are not meant to be derogatory or emphasize any derivativeness; this set of four piano pieces  is situated in a compositional ambience that clearly appeals to McAlley and he inhabits it comfortably, able and deft in manipulating its tropes even if he shows little interest in pursuing Bach off-road into his more taxing chromatic labyrinths.   Further assisting in their success, Harvey’s interpretations are both masterful and compelling.

The musical language moves back further for the next work, a setting for 5 voices of three verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah.  Again, you sense the debt to Tallis, down to the opening identifying sentence and setting of the verses’ initial Hebrew words. A few unexpected modulations or discords  –  for example in the second sentence, the setting of individual words like moverunt and  Samech   –   interrupt an otherwise conventional harmonic scheme.

With the Lento from a string quartet written in 2015, you might be forgiven for thinking that McAlley has simply moved his writing wholesale from vocal to instrumental, given the slow chorale nature of the opening strophes   As the movement progresses, you get the same impression of careful voice-leading: all that’s missing are words.   Then pizzicati appear above a rephrasing of previous melodic material, until the plucking takes over completely.   In the last segment, McAlley returns to the chorale movement of the opening with silences to punctuate the phrases, moving the instruments into their top ranges before shifting to a low-level, brief coda.   The Four Seasons Quartet – violins Sunkyoung Kim and Helen Bower, viola Phoebe Green, cello Nora Brownrigg – give a committed reading of this score which comes across as something of a hodgepodge, despite its economy of melodic material.

It’s back to the Renaissance for In principio erat verbum, a setting of the first two and the 14th verses of Chapter 1 to the Gospel of St. John; familiar to Catholics of a certain age who would recall each Mass being concluded with this Biblical extract (and the intervening verses) as the final prayer in that liturgy.   Once again, this is a conventional work with few surprises except that insistence on isolating the soprano above the ruck.  I will lift up mine eyes uses the first four verses of Psalm 121 and calls for a soprano  soloist (Kate McBride) and string quartet (violins Rachael Hunt and Rachel Garner, viola Shani Williams, cello Alison Both).   It begins with yet another Bachian reminiscence: a siciliano instrumental figure before the voice enters.   The composer is at some pains to exercise McBride’s  highest notes; that’s fine, except that eventually you cannot understand a word in the outer sections of this da capo aria, the singer having one of those ‘English’ sopranos which is accurate enough but sexless and owning very little vibrato.k

Back to imitative polyphony for Lord, you have been our dwelling place which employs McAlley’s favoured combination of five a cappella voices.  The setting is more dramatic than its predecessors, in its central passage becoming very like Anglican chant, with a later strophe for solo voice,  and a moderately active fugal ending.   A solo recorder prefaces and gives an obbligato line (a bit of a distraction, in fact) to the four singers of The Lord bless you and keep you, which is mainly a chorale, the piece progressing for the most part in block chords.

For his 40th birthday, the composer proposed to organise a performance of the Tallis 40-part anthem Spem in alium  –  which may have actually occurred (I wasn’t invited)  –  but he was advised by friends to write his own piece.   Exactly why he took their advice remains unclear, but he did and came up with Omnes angeli: two verses from that primer for mystics and crazies, the Book of Revelation.   A performance of this construct took place on October 26, 2013, given by an expanded Ensemble Gombert under John O’Donnell; which group at the same event also took on the Tallis gem and Robert Carver’s 10-part Mass Dum sacrum mysterium.   This CD’s last track is a recording, made on that date under the dome at 333 Collins St. Melbourne, of McAlley’s huge work which, like its Tallis inspiration, hits the listener as something of an aural onslaught.

The opening is clear enough as the various choirs interweave and set up a picture of the angels falling down before the Throne in worship.   All 40 lines come together to excellent effect at the first Amen.   For the motet’s second part, the texture is almost continuously massive so that the evangelist’s words of praise become a sonorous melange with a few thinner oases before the explosion which is a sort of extended vocal fantasia on a concluding Amen!    Tallis wrote for eight 5-part bodies; McAlley for ten 4-part groups – but detecting the difference in weight would require finer ears than mine.  I can hear some insecure voices in patches of the first half of Omnes angeli but these are soon forgotten when you’re faced with the sumptuous power of the work’s later pages which give a remarkable aural realization of angelic jubilation.

Quite an achievement, getting all these works down on CD.   McAlley himself sings tenor in half of the tracks; Kate McBride’s soprano is heard in nine; her bass husband, Tom Reid, and McAlley’s wife, alto Leonie Tonkin (who provides the recorder for The Lord bless you and keep you), participate in six.    The composer/singer’s dedication to his task is admirable.  But, in the end, you have to wonder whether this recreation of a long-gone style of composition is leading anywhere – or even whether it should.   To my mind, this recording is something of a curio: pleasant to hear, tasteful and well-crafted in its elements even if some of the interpretations are rough around the edges.  A tribute to the musical past by recreating it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March Diary

Sunday March 1

Jayson Gilham

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 3 pm

Hailing from the recently drought-stricken, now over-wet town of Dalby, Gilham has carved out for himself a respectable career as a recording and touring pianist based in London but making frequent return visits to home soil.  Appearing under the local Medici Concerts banner, this 33-year-old musician is presenting an all-sorts program with some old-fashioned virtuoso favourites to further the melange’s attractiveness.  Not one, but two Beethoven sonatas: the No. 17 Tempest in D minor with its spinning-wheel finale, and the No. 14 in C sharp minor yclept Moonlight.   Gilham ends with a group of three ‘Schubert’ arrangements by Liszt: Auf dem Wasser zu singen, Der Muller und der Bach, and Widmung which, since my Eileen Joyce days, I’d always thought was written by Schumann.   Anyway, as exotica, the pianist will perform the Chopin Barcarolle, and then two French bagatelles in the unexpectedly mobile Melancolie by Poulenc, and  Chaminade’s lilting Op. 89 Theme varie; these last two serving the function of mid-program encore materiel, to my mind.

 

Tuesday March 3

VIVALDI’S VENICE

Brandenburg  Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7:30 pm

French harpist Xavier de Maistre is returning to perform as guest with the Brandenburgers, wedging in one Brisbane appearance between his duties in Sydney and Melbourne.   I’m not as hyperbolically responsive to this musician’s talents as most of my colleagues; his transcription of Smetana’s The Moldau – one of this musician’s signature pieces – works well as far as it goes but there are slabs of the original score that have gone missing.   Anyway, this program looks less of a grab-bag than that for de Maistre’s previous tour because it does focus on Venice in the days of its musical (and economic) greatness; an inspiring vision of a city that these days is an unpleasant tourist trap.   We will hear the Vivaldi Lute Concerto in D, RV 93 in D Major, transcribed for harp soloist; the same composer’s Winter from The Four Seasons, also transcribed from the violin solo original.  There will be a Marcello transcription also of the D minor Oboe Concerto, the one that Bach arranged for solo keyboard.   The evening ends with a concerto grosso from Gregori’s Op. 2 set for two violin soloists, this performance billed as an Australian premiere; possibly it will be given as originally scored.   It’s a tad out of place, as this composer lived in Lucca, but what’s a separation of 300 kilometres between friends?     Salzedo’s transcription of Pescetti’s keyboard Sonata in C minor gives us another Venetian voice from Vivaldi’s time.    For non-Venetian filler, de Maistre plays Parish Alvars’ La Mandoline, called a gran studio in my score and a repeated-note test-piece par excellence.  This 19th century salonesque aberration apart, the rest of the program is laudably homogeneous.

 

Friday March 6

MUSICAL SORCERY

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 11 am

Conducted by Benjamin Northey, the QSO begins this entertainment with Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, irremediably linked in my mind with Walt Disney’s vision of it in his 1940 film Fantasia, ruined at the end by Stokowski condescending to an enthusiastic Mickey Mouse.   The night ends with the Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3, complete with piano (two and four hands) and organ parts; such a fine constituent of contemporary Australian culture, thanks to Nigel Westlake‘s interpolation of its Maestoso into both Babe films.   Lucky Brisbane to have the splendid Klais instrument at the orchestra’s disposal for this rousing score; to general astonishment, Melbourne’s Hamer Hall lost its Casavant organ in the building’s refurbishment 10 years ago, which consequently made performances of works like this one impossible in that city’s main orchestral concert-giving venue.   The night’s soloist, principal horn of the Berlin Philharmonic Stefan Dohr, fronts the first Strauss Concerto in E flat, written when the composer was about 18.   You’d expect a really authoritative reading; I’d be happy for an intonationally accurate one.

This program will be repeated on Saturday March 7 at 7:30 pm with the addition of Brisbane-born Cathy Milliken‘s Earth Plays, Þingvellir or Thingvellir, which refers to a park in Iceland where the country’s first parliament, the Althing, assembled from 930 to 1798.  I’ve not heard the work but would anticipate that the writer might have concentrated on musically illustrating the site’s natural properties rather than its legislative achievements.

 

Saturday March 7

SPANISH SOUVENIRS

Jonathan Henderson and Emily Granger

Old Government House at 3 pm

I came across flautist Henderson in Alex Raineri‘s chamber music festival towards the end of last year, during which he played difficult music in several consecutive recitals.  Here, he partners harpist Granger for an hour-long program in which some of the composers have been named; several details are specific, others inferential.   For example, the players begin with Ravel, who wrote nothing for this duo combination, but we are getting his Piece en forme de Habanera, originally a Vocalise etude for bass voice and piano.   Marin Marais?  A treatment of La Folia from its original viol publication into a version for solo flute.  Then Bizet, and automatically you think of that intermezzo in Carmen between Acts 2 and 3; but that isn’t on offer.   Rather, Henderson flaunts his gifts in Francois Borne’s showy Fantaisie brillante on Carmen tunes, mainly the Habanera and the Act 2 Gypsy Dance.   Here comes Jacques Ibert who wrote some entr’actes for flute and harp, as well as a clutch of splendid harp solos, but who also wrote a piece that simulates the Spanish guitar; I can’t find much in his works that brings Spain to mind, except some Don Quixote-related songs.   Chabrier is unrepresented in this combination’s stakes, so you get another habanera: the piano solo from 1885.   De Falla is a near-absentee from the instrumental chamber music field, so we’ll be treated to the Nocturne piano solo of 1896 and all of the Seven Spanish Folksongs.   In addition, we can sample Alphonse Hasselmans, a famous Belgian/French harpist and teacher who wrote a good deal for his instrument, but the only potentially flamenco-reminiscent work I can find is his Gitana caprice.   Whatever comes out, it’s a lot to pack into an hour.

 

Sunday March 8

BEYOND MESSIAH: HIGHLIGHTS OF HANDEL

Brisbane Chamber Choir

St. John’s Cathedral at 2 pm

On the premise that there’s more to the great German composer than his evergreen oratorio, the BCC are presenting other music by Handel.  God knows there’s a lot to choose from but details are non-existent.   Brisbane University’s Graeme Morton will conduct; there will be a supporting band, led by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s Associate Concertmaster, Alan Smith.   About the pieces to be attempted, I am as much in the dark as anybody else not associated with this event.   ZadokMy heart is inditing? Judas MaccabeusSolomonSaulThe Water MusicThe Fireworks Music??   Behold, I tell you a mystery.

 

Sunday March 8

THE KING’S TRUMPETER

Queensland Baroque Orchestra

St. Andrew’s Uniting Church at 2 pm

Here is another program about which details are very few.   The guest soloist is trumpeter John Foster, who is also this body’s artistic director.   His CV is an impressive one, with a lengthy list of appearances in the United States and Europe.   For all that, I can’t recall seeing and/or hearing him in Melbourne.   This afternoon’s music features works by Purcell, Handel, Corbett (presumably William) ‘and others’.  The list of this ensemble’s members is substantial, even if none of the names is familiar to me; 20 strings, 4 woodwind, a brace of trumpets, Baroque guitar and harpsichord adds up to a considerable body.

 

Sunday March 8

THE MAN WHO CRIED

Ensemble Q

Conservatorium Theatre, Southbank at 3 pm

The title comes from a 2000 film with a soundtrack featuring some original pieces supplied by Osvaldo Golijov.   The two extracts nominated for this occasion are Lullaby and Doina; the former is probably the soundtrack number called Close Your Eyes, while the latter has me stumped as it refers to a Romanian musical style well-documented by Bartok.   It could be referring to another track called Without a Word which is an instrumental number from the film that features the Kronos Quartet –  on the recording, not in the film itself.   The concert opens with The Unanswered Question by Ives, that puzzling pseudo-philosophical scrap that asks for four flutes (with an oboe and a clarinet possible for the bottom two lines), a trumpet (or a cor anglais, oboe or clarinet) solo, and a body of strings.   This is followed by a Beethoven string trio, the C minor last of the Op. 9 set; then Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder in one of its several arrangements – Henze, Christophe Lootem, Alain Bonardi, or maybe just as the composer wrote it: voice and piano.   Hindemith’s Trauermusik for viola soloist and strings follows, written at short notice on the death of George V.    Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A rounds out the central German/Austrian core of the entertainment; it can be performed a quattro, without the need for braces of oboes, bassoons and horns.   In the Hindemith, Tobias Breider from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra will be soloist; soprano Greta Bradman sings the Wagner cycle; Daniel de Borah takes centre-stage in the concerto.  Violinist William Huxtable from Victoria is guest concertmaster.

 

Wednesday March 11

BEN FOLDS: THE SYMPHONIC TOUR

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7:30 pm

Look, I don’t know about this.   Not the merits of it, but how the actual collaboration will work and make sense.    Or perhaps I really am troubled by its value as my main question is: what is Folds bringing to the orchestra and to an informed public?   The American singer-songwriter has appeared several times in this country, notably in 2006 when he performed with most of the state symphony orchestras.   This time around, he’s fronting all these mainland organizations again.    He has a piano concerto in his catalogue of compositions, and that might be interesting to experience.   But what I’ve heard of his songs makes me think that the premier orchestral musicians of this country will be slumming.    We’ve seen plenty of this in Melbourne as far back as when the MSO collaborated with Elton John and got so excited by the experience that the organization made him a life member.    But then, Kiss also stood in front of the MSO, after which certain participants struggled to sound grateful for the experience.   In any case, audiences will obviously come in droves to these concerts; otherwise, putting them on the annual program couldn’t be justified.    It’s probably a pleasant enough event to sit through, but it’s mindless and, in these mentally tremulous times, we have to exercise our brains more often than we have done over the past seven decades.   Oh, and I’ve just listened to the Folds Piano Concerto.    It’s another case of somebody playing at being creative but with absolutely nothing new to say, the construct emanating from a musical type who shows no awareness of developments in serious music over the past century and hence is hard to take seriously.

This program will be repeated on Thursday March 12 at 7:30 pm.

 

Sunday March 15

THE BALLET BEAUTIFUL

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 11:30 am

Here is the first of this year’s five ‘Music on Sundays’ concerts from the QSO.   For one mad moment, I thought that the event would have dancers to bring the music into the dimension where it belongs.   But a look at what is being offered put paid to that daydream.    Popular local lad Simon Hewitt, currently principal conductor at the Hamburg Ballet, is one of the two directors listed; the other is Guy Noble, who also has the narrator’s job thrust upon him.   You’ll have to be ready to do a lot of jumping around, with several ‘selections from’ on the menu.   Bits from Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes preface selections from Delibes’ Sylvia and Coppelia,  The concert ends with the Suite No. 2 from Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane with its exhilarating and entirely appropriate Bacchanale.  Speaking of which, we also get to hear the Bacchanale that starts the last act of Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila, an extract that cemented Near Eastern atmospherics for some generations of Hollywood composers.   The Grand Pas de deux from Adam’s Giselle is ranged alongside the Dance of the Furies and its balancing Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s Orfeo.    Also, the QSO brass get a chance to shine in the Fanfare pour preceder ‘La Peri’ by Dukas – music for a ballet before the curtain actually goes up.   And, on this kind of program, you can always rely on an outsider sneaking up on you; in this case, another Saint-Saens in the Morceau de concert, today showing off the talents of Alex Miller, the orchestra’s associate principal horn, and having no relevance at all to The Ballet Beautiful.

 

Friday March 20

THE JUPITER SYMPHONY

Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University at 7:30 pm

The most aristocratic of Classical period symphonies concludes this night’s work, its student participants under the control of Johannes Fritzsch, conductor laureate of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and currently guest conductor of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.    Preceding this elevating masterpiece, Fritzsch takes his charges through Stravinsky’s eight-movement Pulcinella Suite, extracted from the 1920 ballet which marked the composer’s descent into neoclassicism; this requires pairs of woodwind and horns, as well as a single trumpet and trombone, with a string corps.  Requiring probably even fewer numbers, at the night’s centre stands Takemitsu’s 10-minute Tree Line for chamber orchestra.    Put it all together and you get a bit over an hour’s playing time, which strikes me as rather short, especially for a university concert.    However, you’d hope that the music-making itself will prove brisk and refreshing.

 

Saturday March 21

THE PEASANT PRINCE

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio at 9:30 am and 11 am

This is a musical re-telling of Li Cunxin‘s life story: how the country boy became one of the world’s most famous dancers.   There’s no choreography involved but the exercise is reinforced with illustrations by Anne Spudvilas, and actor Bryan Probets will provide the narrative component.   This work, written in 2009, is a ‘symphonic tale’ which lasts half an hour, involving single woodwind, single brass, timpanist and two percussionists, harp and 30 strings.   The story has, of course, particular significance for Queensland as Li is artistic director of the state’s ballet company.    But, even to outsiders like this writer, the dancer’s story is a gripping one: it illustrates how having the right people helping you at the right time makes the difference between a successful career in the upper echelons of Australia’s cultural world and a lengthy term of detention on Christmas Island or Nauru.  Brett Kelly conducts.

 

Monday March 30

ARVO PART & SHOSTAKOVICH

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7 pm

Again, something of a mixed bag from the country’s leading chamber orchestra.   One of the more revealing works will be Prokofiev’s 1947 Solo Violin Sonata being played by all ten of the ACO violinists.   In fact, the composer wrote this work for massed performers, in line with Russian teaching practice (then? now?) where groups regularly played soloists’ music en masse.   ACO Artistic director Richard Tognetti and Satu Vanska are the violin soloists in Arvo Part’s Tabula rasa Double Concerto, which requires a prepared piano as well as string orchestra support.   Shostakovich provides the concert’s conclusion with his Chamber Symphony: the Quartet No. 8 arranged for string orchestra by notable violist/conductor Rudolf Barshai.   Prefacing these major works will be Wojciech Kilar‘s Orawa, a work relating to a district on the border between Poland and Slovakia.  Nevertheless, the most linguistically advanced work on this program is also its shortest: the Misterioso movement from Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho‘s Nymphea Reflection in which the textures are added to by the players’ whispering lines of a poem by Arseny Tarkovsky at the same time as articulating the composer’s wispy textures

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Attractive version of a Schubert landmark

 

 

 

WINTER JOURNEY/WINTERREISE

Nathan Lay and Brian Chapman

Move Records MCD 594

Winter Journey

 

Here is a considerable undertaking.  Baritone Nathan Lay and pianist Brian Chapman have recorded Schubert’s superlative song-cycle in two languages, the English translations by Chapman himself.   As well, the CD booklet incorporates illustrations by the accompanist’s wife Lucy – one picture per lied, the art designated by its creator as Nature Surrealism.   About this aspect of the product, I feel incapable of offering any meaningful appraisal; any fool can see the obvious relationships between Muller’s poems and the artist’s works, especially if you consider the schizophrenic nature of the narrator’s self-descriptions.   As far as I can tell, Lucy Chapman is not attempting a profound delineation of each lied‘s emotional content but an illustration of each poem’s main features or dominant motives.  Enough of that; it certainly makes for a colourful booklet, even if you can carp at the artist’s personality-less depiction of Muller’s protagonist as a black silhouette (see the album’s cover above).

Lay is not a known quantity to me although his career should have brought him into view through his activities with Opera Australia, Victorian Opera and the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic.   But I can’t place him.   Chapman I’ve heard several times, mainly at the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival and on Louisa Hunter-Bradley’s CD of this very same Schubert cycle, released 14 years ago.

This Lay/Chapman enterprise has many attractions, the chief one being the excellent relationship between the artists which shows an unflagging empathy at work throughout both versions of the 24-part sequence.   You’d expect a note-perfect rendition of each page these days, given the powers of recording studios to mask technical flaws.   But you don’t expect to come across a consistent meeting of interpretative minds such as you find here.   Yes, there’s a temptation to put the credit for this at Chapman’s door, given his years of chamber music experience and status as a top-class accompanist.   But that would detract from the baritone’s clear, consistently lyrical line which, if it’s not at the rich timbral level of formidable male Schubert singers who graced the last century, is as satisfying and rewarding as comparable performances from his contemporaries in this country.

The English version starts impressively with a carefully measured reading of Gute Nacht, the interpretation melancholy, not doleful and gifted with some eloquent piano detail work in the interludes.   The following Die Wetterfahne speaks clearly enough, although the ritenuti and fermata points seems to be  weighty.   Gefror’ne Tranen comes across with similar lucidity, the climactic final line impressively determined as Schubert treats one of Muller’s wettest poems.  A certain gentlemanliness restricts the impact of Erstarrung which makes its points with a sort of polite vigour.   Then, Der Lindenbaum is a complete success, both performers carving a clear arc through the lied‘s narrative with a melting-moment resignation in the final sixth verse.

Chapman’s annotation for Wasserflut refers to the 1963 version by Pears and Britten where the interpreters ironed out the dotted-quaver-semiquaver pattern that permeates the song, breaking both voice and piano lines down to convenient and congruent triplets.   The controversy must have passed me by, although I’m sure it caused a sensation in Schubertian circles and apparently brought out the progressive in Alfred Brendel and the conservative in Gerald Moore.   On the English-language disc, Lay and Chapman opt for the Pears/Britten treatment; on the German one, the musicians perform the score as written.   Storm in a teacup?   Probably, unless you’re a stickler for the written word/note.

I once heard a young cellist from the Australian National Academy of Music proclaim in an eventually aimless, and therefore useless seminar that a composer’s score is really a palimpsest, with the obvious inference that an interpreter should have the right to do her/his best/worst, if necessary wiping the compositional slate clean.  It’s a hard question on which to pontificate but I must confess to being moved to fury territory by performances that play blurring tricks similar to the Pears/Britten example with Baroque and Classical works.   In this case, the song necessarily becomes less fraught emotionally in the last line of the even-numbered verses.  The only irritating factor was Chapman’s use of that translator’s admission of defeat: the word ‘perforce’.

For Auf dem Flusse, the duo presents another persuasive account with a steady growth from calm meditation to powerful declamation over one of the cycle’s more gripping piano parts.   Lay makes an impassioned business of Ruckblick, shaping the rapid-moving sentences with  a welcome lack of rigidity.  Another unexpected move comes from Chapman in the second-last bar where my edition brings the heretofore alternating chords together but the pianist maintains the disjunction that obtains throughout the rest of the piece.   The split character of Irrlicht, the composer deliberately tamping down the text’s possibilities, is handled with unexpected brightness, the usual dark-timbre colours not stuffed down your throat.  The ensuing version of Rast impresses for its intensity, although the last two lines are hard to grasp in this translation.

Two out of the three segments in Fruhlingstraum come off successfully; you might have expected more bite in the middle ‘crowing cockerels’ verses.   At the cycle’s half-way point, Einsamkeit continues the Werther-like self-absorption of poet and composer; in this particular song, Lay sounds remarkably convincing, his dynamic depth not extreme and his vocal personality suitably youthful.   I’d be the last to dismiss the narrator’s dejection as essentially adolescent – his blighted love is unassailably cogent and continuous.   But the Winterreise world is emphatically that of a young man, not a character full of years and experience.

A few cracks appear in Die Post, like some blurred chords in the softer accompaniment passages and a forced quality to the leap from C sharp to E in the second and third-last bars of the vocal line.   A touch more difficult to accept is Lay’s characterisation during  Der greise Kopf which sounded more like dismay than appalled self-recognition.   Both artists produce a satisfying reading of Die Krahe, the whole carried out with a calm anguish from the voice and an untroubled inevitability from the keyboard.

The collaboration again works to excellent effect in Letzte Hoffnung where the abrupt turns of mood come across without jarring, the short song rounded off with an insightful depiction of optimism rooted in despair.  The following Im Dorfe shows requisite spine, although Lay’s best passage comes with the retraction of defiance beginning at Je nun. Chapman holds little back in Der sturmische Morgen, crowding his singer out of the picture during the Und rote Feuerflammen stanza; mind you, there’s little room for Lay to achieve anything substantial  in this bold-speaking brevity.  You know, by the time the cycle reaches Tauschung that every suggestion of lilting happiness is an illusion but you’d be working hard to find a sign of it from these artists; an interlude without depth it seems here, not helped by Chapman’s use of the odd noun ‘perambulation’ in the admittedly awkward second half of the first quatrain.

Nearing the end, Schubert asks a good deal more of his interpreters.  Der Wegweiser taxes the singer with yet another steadily rhythmic set of phrases that gradually decrease in motion until a mournful full stop – a path that Lay invests with an appealing innocence that falls just short of the innate suggestions of dread.   During Das Wirtshaus, Chapman carries all before him with a fine account of the prelude, postlude and interpolations, each note in every chord sounding clearly and in balance. – which is not to ignore the baritone’s emphatic declamation over Schubert’s final lines.

The surge out of desolation that is projected in Mut! –  a pause in the poet’s downward spiral – appears as unwieldy in this reading as in most others, with its rousing school-song echoes; Lay and Chapman play a straight bat here, not looking for any biting irony.  In the concluding brace, Die Nebensonnen and Der Leiermann, musicians are presented with differing-but-similar visions: the first, symbolic regret; the second, a spiritual nihilism of extraordinary honesty.   Both enjoy exemplary airings, the last track of this English language CD an alternative version of Der Leiermann    Well, not that different:  Chapman simply omits the final resolving bar, leaving this Muller-Schubert enterprise hanging.

What of the German version?  Suddenly, we’re at home.   It’s not that you have to work hard to decipher Muller’s language  –  nobody would call it simple  –   but even a rudimentary knowledge of German enables you to glean clues all the way through.  Does the move back to original material change the cycle significantly?    Well, yes, it does.  For instance, Lay’s production doesn’t alter in his second-disc Gute Nacht, but the emphasis across phrases becomes more logical or appropriate, particularly in the major key move for the last stanza.    During Die Wetterfahne, the interpretation gains from an influx of initial plosives.  Erstarrung, too, becomes much more gripping and emotionally fraught in its later stretches.   Listening to the English disc, I noticed Chapman’s slight arpeggiations – no, disjunctions – at the start of some odd-numbered bars in his interludes for Der Lindenbaum; here, details like that and a punctilious observance of note-values are just as enriching to the lied‘s fabric the second time around.

The change brought about by working through Wasserflut as originally written is the establishment of a tension between voice and piano that makes the experience more aurally disturbing.   It also appears to add an aggressive undercurrent, while also seeming to slow down the tempo, although the booklet information has the German two seconds shorter than the English reading.    Indeed, the only noteworthy temporal discrepancies between the discs come with Einsamkeit which is longer in German and the cycle’s final Der Leiermann which is somewhat longer in German than in either of the English tracks.

Further on, I was again gripped by the passion of Ruckblick – a world of hurtling angst in such a brief space.   The triplet/dotted rhythm conflict that so exercised observers about Wasserflut is a bit of a moveable feast in Irrlicht: a peculiarity that I found in both discs.

Still not happy with Lay’s third leap at the end of Die Post but the second reading is, if anything, striking for Chapman’s genteel galloping.   More engrossing as a carefully considered interpretation is Letzte Hoffnung with a pliable but not over-distracting rubato applied in all sorts of places, regardless of the designated changes in tempo throughout this marvellous depiction of mutability in nature and the poet-musician’s spirits.    Even more in the original tongue, you can feel dissatisfied with Der sturmische Morgen for its light texture and those stretches where piano and vocal line progress in unison; a very moderate storm at work here until the  ego is inserted during the last couplet  –   another polite interpretation offered here as in the English disc.

A telling demonstration of the care taken in preparing this recording emerges in Der Wegweiser where Lay’s pauses for breath are finely gauged to make maximum sense of the poem’s scansion,  Chapman ever alert to the singer’s small-scale mobility.   The re-take of Mut! is resolute enough, but the vocal F Major arpeggio on the second sind wir selber Gotter! lacks ringing definition.   The baritone’s elegiac regret in Die Nebensonnen sounds even more striking here, and Der Leiermann walks a fine line between remoteness of observation and total self-identification, thanks to the pianist’s reserve and Lay’s capacity for muted plangency.

You’ll find much that satisfies in this double album, no matter whether you plump for total comprehension (Lay is admirably clear in both languages), or find it hard to hear old favourites in an unexpected garb, or are only content with readings as close to the original palimpsest as musicians can get.   No shocks await the listener on either disc and, even in the song-cycle’s less-inspired passages, Lay and Chapman’s well-crafted workmanship in performance is consistent and reliable.   It’s a most commendable exercise notable for its calm and unaffected reading of a lieder cornerstone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Placid and unchallenging

WHAT SHOULD I SAY

Elysian Fields

Move Records MCD 580

 

Elysian

 

First off, let me confess that this is a fusion with which I have little sympathy; that could be a background thing, an impatience with blandness or an absence of events.   Elysian Fields bills itself as an electric viola da gamba band.   Its six-member personnel take their impetus from Jenny Eriksson who plays the focal instrument.  She is helped along her way by vocalist and violinist Susie Bishop, saxophonist Matt Keegan, pianist Matt McMahon, bass guitarist Siebe Pogson, and drummer Finn Ryan.  I’m assuming that these artists operate principally in Sydney: the CD was made there and the groups with which these artists have links all seem to be working in the Harbour City.

So far, so fine.  What do you get for your money?   Put simply, about 52 minutes’ worth of music, which is heading towards the light-on.   In daring style, the Elysians begin with  settings of four Thomas Wyatt poems, with an extra track that serves as a prelude to the longest setting  –  that of Whoso list to hunt.   I don’t know if ‘daring’ is right, though.  The whole business reminds me of a time when I got into an argument with a folk-song singer and band leader (surname of West, I seem to recall).   It was decades ago, in the days when my judgments had not been not tempered in the furnaces of experience.   I reviewed this particular concert/recital at Monash University’s Blackwood Hall and questioned the validity of the arrangements, which struck me as sentimental and saccharine.  The singer wrote back that his interpretations were as valid as anyone’s because we don’t know exactly how people sang folk-songs originally.   That’s sort of true; what we do know, thanks to honest ethnomusicological research, is that they didn’t involve plush harmonizations or metrical/rhythmic and linear flattening-out in similar vein to Simon and Garfunkel’s handling of Scarborough Fair.

What has this to do with the Elysians’ Wyatt settings?  It’s tangential but it raises a question about the suitability of McMahon’s music to the Tudor poet’s verses.  For instance, does the music reflect, or even attempt to mirror, the dichotomy offered in the first track,  Stand Whoso list?   I can’t hear it; the song has a jazz-inflected prelude and its vocal line is limited in both vocal and emotional compasses, the eventual effect a bit of a dirge.   The second Wyatt song, Whoso list to hunt, enjoys a discrete instrumental prelude which is one of the CDs more interesting tracks in its harmonic meanderings.  But the verse setting follows the same slow pace and non-responsiveness to the poet’s words as in the first poem’s treatment.  The following What should I say and They flee from me follow the same slow andante pace; all poems except the last are repeated with varying supports – sustained bass note, single instrument as counterweight, the ensemble following the singer all too closely with complementary chords or parallel melodic lines.

But the final effect is soporific, the songs of a piece in emotional output and ambience. composer McMahon apparently viewing the settings as a kind of uniform suite.  Well, it’s one view but you might have expected something less four-square and, when you’re broken in, formulaic.   Erriksson’s electric gamba sounds unremarkable in this group, without any bite or swoop, sometimes confusingly similar in timbre to Keegan’s ultra-cool sax.   Quite a few of the poems’ linguistic peculiarities have disappeared and, while over 90% of the vocal line is of a one-note-per-syllable approach, the final line of the last poem acquires a completely gratuitous extra syllable.  Bishop handles her work, both vocal and instrumental (not much of the latter), with a gentle grace.

Matts Norrefalk’s Southern Cross arranged by Pogson, begins as a piano solo before Keegan enters, eventually yielding primacy to Eriksson; then Pogson gets a guernsey.  But, like Ricky Gervais, by this stage I don’t care; the piece is an amiable ramble and could be interchanged with much of the instrumental work that accompanied the Wyatt poems.  It’s reminiscent of that 1959 film Jazz on a Summer’s Day: hazy, meandering, the ideal background to an unchallenging riesling.   Pogson’s Dark Dreaming raises the temperature a good deal with some momentary off-centre rhythmic japes and an extended duet for sax and gamba, but it eventually goes the way of all flesh on the disc and settles into a post-MJQ rut that could have been heard in any 1960s Melbourne jazz club.

With  Elysium, settings of poems by Philip Pogson (Eriksson’s husband), composed by Keegan, the pace picks up considerably.   Here again, the interest lies somewhere else than in finding a sustaining insight into the text which gets the same syllable-by-syllable treatment and moves into several patches where the vocal line simply wanders from one pitch to its adjacent companions.   But the various segments (three songs, one instrumental with a few vocalised vowels) have a vivacity that has been lacking so far.  It’s not that the rhythm complexes get more tangled or that the instrumental combinations hold interest (apart from a gamba/sax duet that came out of nowhere). No: you sense that the performers are being stressed, exercised; Bishop hits her top notes and, in this context, they come close to thrilling.

Finally, the CD ends with a piano/gamba duet, At Carna, by McMahon in which Eriksson is under the spotlight for the most sustained stretch on the CD.   Carna refers, I believe, to the district of that name in Connemara, County Galway and the music consists of a set of variations/re-statements of a folk-like tune holding some charm and polish.  It makes a pleasant conclusion to this series of musical excursions, a kind of jazz-classical fusion with a pretty string accent on the former.   It’s taken me months to get through the CD without  becoming exasperated, mainly at the lack of grip; very little here is technically interesting and the emotional language strikes this jaded listener as too simple to take seriously.   Definitely one for those who like their music to have a benign, holiday atmosphere, not any pretensions towards intellectual engagement.