Refined yet insipid

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment & Rachel Podger

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday November 14 and Saturday November 18



This democratically operating band has achieved a high reputation in the ranks of period performance if mainly, it seems to me, through the undisguised puffery of British critics and music writers.   Much has been made of the ensemble’s improbable survival, endless self-examination, penchant for various guest directors (albeit ones with top-notch reputations) and catholicity of style.   Not much of this made any difference to Tuesday’s first Melbourne concert from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment which, fronted by guest violinist Podger, performed two symphonies – Haydn’s Lamentatione No. 26 in D minor and J.C. Bach’s G minor Op. 6 No. 6 – and the bookends of Mozart’s violin concerto output: all four compositions written within a decade of each other and coming from a cosy trio of mutually admiring master-writers.

An Australian composer once asked me to make no comparisons between his work and that of other composers whenever I reviewed his work and, although it’s a difficult omission to endure, I’ve tried to keep to it, apart from harmless generalizations that seem unarguable.  The temptation to compare ensembles and orchestras is more difficult to carry out, even on the local scene; performance differences between the Goldner, Flinders and Australian String Quartets are there to be noted, I suppose, but seem to recede in importance when you consider each group’s specific interpretative powers on a particular occasion.

But I couldn’t help thinking of the Australian Chamber Orchestra while listening to the OAE.   The points of difference are clear; Richard Tognetti doesn’t go in for the real period touches, usually because he presents programs more historically diffuse than this one from Tuesday and what’s good for your Bach is not necessarily worth persevering with in your Bartok.   For all their historical exactitude, the British players worked with a kind of diffidence, a temperamental restraint that might have been in operation during the second half of the 18th century – who can tell? – but which resulted in some passages of tedium.  While the ACO takes up every challenge with overt enthusiasm – everything becomes vital, if not confrontational – these Musica Viva guests kept themselves nice, observing a calm style of presentation which often proved admirable if also distancing.

Podger and her supporters were frugal with vibrato, but you’d be unwise to cavil at this practice because it speaks to a lucidity and freshness of texture that you can hardly hope to reach if you let your left hand wobble on the spot at every opportunity.  As a corollary, your intonation has to be spot-on because every note in a sequence takes on a quality tantamount to musical nudity; there is no leeway, no place to hide if you miscalculate. While the Enlightened outlined the Haydn symphony with a discipline of emotional content, you missed decisiveness from the string body, especially the bass elements which throughout the program showed a spread of focus, as though the absence of a conductor’s decisive beat meant that the bottom line could indulge in a bit of a spread.

This lack of bite showed up all the more sharply because the body’s pairs of oboes and horns took on extraordinary prominence, simply as timbre contributors even at obvious moments like bar 58 of the central Adagio where they set the running for the movement’s second half.  In fact, the strings’ delivery during the latter two movements showed more authority than had been obvious in the opening Allegro assai where the occasional intonative crack emerged from the violins.

You never hear the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 1, violinists opting for the melodic eloquence of the final three in the set, more often than not No. 5 which Podger also performed to wind up the night.  To a certain degree, this violinist’s historically obedient use of gut strings only gave her reading an unstressed edge, the violin line primus inter pares; nevertheless, the lack of steel in timbre, coupled with  the sparing vibrato made each deviation evident and small slips emerged even as early as the soloist’s first exposure. More than the preceding symphony, this score made for involving music-making, although I have to admit that interest levels drooped during the three cadenzas.  Also, this was the only part of the night where the horns – well, one of them – dropped a note; when I think of the error-laden experiences endured at the hands of local period instrument players . . .

The Bach symphony produced the program’s most lively engagement in its outer Allegro movements but the central Andante was something of a trial. At two points for strings alone, the players appeared to concentrate on generating a continuously static communal output, situations where the work’s forward motion stopped, as though the participants were putting their trust in the composer’s orchestration colours to generate attention – which is fine when you have actual colours to deal with.

The one unalloyed high-point of the evening came in the Mozart A Major Violin Concerto’s adagio.  Yes, the music itself is some streets ahead of anything else this concert offered, but it also suited the soloist’s mellow sound flavour in the middle of the composer’s eloquent orchestra loaded with refined detail at every corner.  Again, Podger gave vent to her ability to insert substantial cadenzas; I must admit to wishing for something a tad less prolix by the time the rondeau had reached the usual spot for an interpolation; after all, you don’t have to play a cadenza, particularly in this movement which has enough internal interest to keep you on the qui vive.

The forces at work for this concert made an interesting study.  With Podger at first desk for the symphonies, the first violins numbered five, the seconds four; three violas, two cellos and one double-bass completed the group.   As well as the horn and oboe pairs, the bass line boasted Sally Jackson’s bassoon which I was hard pressed to discern anywhere during the program.  Perhaps the lack of drive from the upper strings was due to half their number not appearing on the body’s current playing list.  With the ACO, you get the occasional ring-in but most of the time each face is a very familiar one; the which faces will become more familiar to London audiences when Tognetti and his people take up their position for a three-year term as an International Associate ensemble at the Barbican during the 2018/19 season, bringing novelties like steel strings and, more importantly, biting unanimity of attack and a fusion of intellectual and emotional rigour to the London chamber orchestral scene.

Still, it was certainly entertaining being in attendance – with a highly enthusiastic audience – on this night where the OAE indulged us with some enjoyable pages of refined, delectable doodling.




Reductio ad absurdum


Melbourne Opera

Athenaeum Theatre

November 11, 14, 16 and 18

                                                         Helena Dix and Danielle Calder

I suppose that it’s some centuries too late to rail about Donizetti’s asinine Tudor operas which pervert history for the sake of improbable, rudimentary if not execrably written dramatic situations.   And it’s undeniable that, compared to the Maria Stuarda plot-line compiled for the composer by Bardari, the Cammarano book for Roberto Devereux cannot come as a shock to anyone used to bel canto pot-boiler libretti.  But experiencing this conclusion to the Melbourne Opera’s  sequence of Donizetti’s Henry VIII/Elizabeth I operas did not make for a particularly happy night in the Athenaeum.

Soprano Helena Dix returned to the company to sing the role of Elizabeth and her vocal display was one of the opening night’s highlights from her opening Duchessa . . Alle fervide preci up to the ridiculous self-indulgence of the opera’s finale, Quel sangue versato where the queen’s self-indulgence spills over into bathos.  You could relish the precision of Dix’s fioriture alongside the control on display in her ensemble work, all without finding much to fault.

But, from the beginning, the  characterization of Elizabeth offered little beyond amusement and not-to-be-suppressed memories of Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.  This queen, brought down to the groundlings’ level, is a figure of fun, pettish and slightly ridiculous, certainly the biggest entity on this stage and encased in an unflattering farthingale.  The malevolent turn that penetrates her first duet with Devereux, In sembianza di reo, presents as almost childishly spiteful and both Dix and director  Suzanne Chaundy seemed unable to give the character a personality with which you might find some sympathy.

Matters hardly improve in the queen’s confrontation of Devereux with Sara’s scarf, the proof (somehow) of his infidelity to her.  You can see that all the running is left to Elizabeth but her display of the incriminating object is schoolgirl-spiteful at best, as is her intransigence with Nottingham’s requests for mercy. The best recourse here was to ignore the staging and focus on the vocal interplay which, on Dix’s part – once you set aside the overdrawn malice – remained consistently impressive.

Henry Choo gave us a well-rounded Devereux, although it was easier to take to the ardour of his Una volta, crudel interchange and consequent duet with Danielle Calder’s Sara than to his initial appearance in front of Elizabeth where the tenor over-stressed the guilty asides both with the Queen and in the pendant scene with Nottingham.  Still, Choo made a fine feast of his focal scene Ed ancor, la tremenda porta where Devereux resolves to keep his secrets and endure execution; here was an excellent sample of lyrical and persuasive bel canto, determined and not over-supple but clear-speaking and consistent across its demanding range.

Phillip Calcagno, one of the company’s stalwarts, worked hard as Nottingham., the friend turned enemy who serves as the all-too-predictable fulcrum around whom the tragedy turns.   His baritone is accurate enough but it lacks pliancy; a single-minded insistence on correct delivery worked in the baritone’s favour during his reassurance of Devereux but proved wearing in his pleadings with Elizabeth, Non venni mai si mesto, probably because of the sharp contrast brought into play with Dix’s fluid phrasing.  However, the angrier Nottingham became, the more convincing Calcagno’s efforts.

It’s no fault of any singer that he has to indulge in a rapid, hardly credible conversion from dedicated confidante to moustache-twirling vengeful cuckold (or so he believes) in an instant; Cammarano’s dialogue sets up this change and Donizetti was in too much of a hurry for any subtlety.  When the penny starts to drop, Calcagno does his best from Orrenda luce balena onward but the transformation is unavoidably melodramatic. The confrontation with his wife that begins Sara, vederlo io voglio gave us the singer’s finest moments where the emotional intensity of this character’s abrupt change in situation almost brought about a commensurate flexibility in Nottingham’s vocal line.

Calder’s Sara opened the opera, fittingly enough with a plaint:  All’afflitto e dolce il pianto – a marvellous gift from the composer – but the soprano was directed in such a manner that the lines made little impression, coming across as more petulant than tinted with tragedy. Things improved markedly in Calder’s ensemble work, her deliberation a worthy match for Choo in the couple’s renunciation scene and an attention-grabbing counterweight to Calcagno’s vicious recriminations in the husband-and-wife confrontation.

Jason Wasley played Lord Cecil without stress, but then there’s not much for the character to do.  Eddie Muliaumaseali’i enjoyed the part of Raleigh, who has a scene of conspiracy with Elizabeth, Assente egli era, where he produces the scarf he has found on Devereux.  It isn’t much to play with but the bass made each phrase count; his delight in ruining a rival almost made you feel some pleasure in knowing that this knight was to meet his comeuppance under James I some 17 years after the opera’s action.

As for the company’s chorus, the general effusions sounded enthusiastic, but the night began in pretty ordinary fashion with the court ladies’ Gemer!   Pallor funesto coming across the footlights to scrappy effect.   As is customary in these 19th century Italian pre-Verdi works, the male chorus tended to bellow when given the opportunity.

Greg Hocking conducted a pit that every so often found it hard to agree on the beat.  The overture’s tutti exclamation chords sounded effective but the following reading of God save the king suffered from an uneven woodwind trio where the oboe drowned out the melody-bearing flute.  Hocking did little to keep the brass restrained which was a pity as his strings worked hard and efficiently while the horns were not always as reliable.  As Hocking knows better than most, the Athenaeum is a small space where the orchestral output sounds acoustically dry with little-to-no resonance.   Duets and trios worked effectively in stage-pit combination but the hurly-burly full choruses, enthusiastically essayed, sounded too hefty for the air volume available.

In a bid to aid communication, the work was sung in English: a practice that works well when the libretto is worth understanding in detail but not so fortunate on this occasion where the audience found plenty to laugh at in Act 1.  This comprehensibility factor favoured recitatives but arias and more complex structures did not always succeed as well as they might have if all singers had been coached in shaping their words.

But is there a point in laying bare the bones of this opera?  Much of the time, it flies in the face of sense, nowhere more so than in the essential plot element involving a ring that the queen gives to Devereux, to be used by him as a court of last appeal if he gets caught up in trouble.   Even at the final curtain, Elizabeth is brandishing this infantile talisman of intrigue, as though the tragedy can be attributed to its misuse, rather than the fact that Devereux was a compleat traitor with a long history, for such a young man, of disobedience and intemperate behaviour.

On top of this, Cammarano and Donizetti portray the queen herself as a venal, uncontrolled personage; her last words in the opera are an apparently splenetic act of abdication, although in reality she had another two – almost three – years to live and reign after Devereux’s execution.   The legend of the Virgin Queen comes in for a belting as well since her physical infatuation comes pulsing though all too clearly in her musing that begins L’amor suo mi fe’ beata.

So, at the night’s end, after the audience’s full expression of pleasure in Dix and Choo’s realizations of difficult roles, the over-riding impression that I took away was one of vulgarity; not just because the creators had played ducks and drakes with the facts but more so that they had demeaned the story, working to an operatic lowest common denominator.   I’m one of very few patrons of this mind, for sure, but I’m glad the Donizetti/Tudor experience is over.  Here’s hoping the company doesn’t attempt to round out the enterprise with a staging of Il castello di Kenilworth.


One for the true specialists


Amanda Cole, Janet Brewer. Neil Heymink

Move Records MCD 565


It’s not every day that you come across music by Johann Philipp Krieger; his younger brother Johann, yes – familiar to most organists and harpsichordists as a name to reckon with when entering the early Baroque.  But J.P. is an historical enigma and this CD deals with a significant part of his oeuvre about which details are sketchy and, even after enjoying the disc several times over, I’m uncertain whether or not I have a grip of its content.

The performers are mezzo Amanda Cole, bassoon Neil Heymink and harpsichord Janet Brewer.  Alongside the 20 arias and songs that the players work through, Brewer concludes the album with Krieger’s Aria con variazioni in B, one of the three remaining keyboard works of the composer that I can find.  As for the vocal numbers, not all of them employ Cole’s voice.   For instance, the first track, An den wilden Aeolus from the opera Flora, Ceres und Pomona, sees the vocal line entrusted to the bassoon.  Much the same happens further along with Jagerlust from Cephalus und Procris, and finally the two instruments take on the challenges of Die beue Bauernstube, also from the Procris work.

According to these musicologically informed musicians, you will only find 24 arias still extant from Krieger’s 34 (or thereabouts) operas and singspiels.  So this compendium forms the greater part of his stage work to survive, although it hasn’t done so very well.  The allocation of particular arias to specific characters presents problems – necessarily so when all you have to work with are fragments.  And the trio has engaged in further forensic work by stripping back the detail inserted by editor Hans Joachim Moser for his 1930 Nagels Verlag publication of German songs.  Throughout, the dominant orchestral input – the top string line, I suppose –  is mainly entrusted to the bassoon: a process that leaves Amanda Cole very exposed.

This represents admirable, scouring treatment of the composer’s work, taking it back to a bare-bones stage.  My problem is a simple one: the arias often lack any context; for example, the single extract from Der wiederkehrende Phoebus, a song about agility not just being witchcraft, is a spirited construct but without any trace of the opera’s libretto or cast of characters, it presents as an enigmatic operatic orphan.

Further, quite a few of the tracks are brief; three come in under a minute and the average length is a touch over two minutes.  In fact, the most substantial offering – Liebespein from Cecrops mit seinen drei Tochtern – lasts 6 minutes and yet what you learn through its duration amounts to very little in terms of insight into Krieger’s compositional technique.  Still, these musicians do good service for the Flora work with nine arias; the Cecrops and Procris works are represented by five numbers each.

Of course, the actual sound of these arias is circumscribed with few signs of inserted fanciful flights from any of the performing trio.  But the general effect is – almost necessarily – reminiscent of Bach,  mainly in the melodic movement, not in the underpinning craft where Krieger is less concerned with inventiveness but more with felicity of utterance, as in An die Sonnengott from the Flora opera: an address to Titan/Apollo which is fluent and engaging but straight out of the salon.  Then, by contrast, Verliebtes Weinen und Lachen holds a few moments that remind you of Monteverdi’s operatic declamations.

More often, the composer’s bent turns to simple lyrics that don’t make many chromatic waves, like the assertively plaintive Der Heissverliebte where, as in several other arias, the bassoon takes over the vocal line for a verse or two; although you can’t rely on this  textural relief as in Coridon in Geldnoten where Cole sings the same rather uninspired material four times.  The first opportunity in these Flora extracts where you’d hope to get a hold on the composer in slightly extended format is the concluding Sommerfreuden, a 6/8 pastorale of some charm; but this is simply an aria with more verses than its predecessors.

The Cecrops group begins with that long Liebespein.  Again, this is an amiable plaint but its melodic shape is predictable and while the players’ efforts to deck it with some ornamentation are welcome, they’re not enough to compensate for its pedestrian inspiration.  Ach! Pandrose, more concise, is brisk, almost a march and, without decrying Cole’s interpretation, might have benefited from being sung by a sturdy baritone.  The lack of harmonic variety emerges pretty plainly in Die holde Nacht where the tonal centre – D minor? – hardly moves throughout the aria.  Similarly, in Schmilz, hartes Herz!, a feint to the dominant is the only variety offered in a deft but unadventurous little lyric.

By the time you reach the Cephalus und Procris bracket, you have settled into the Krieger ethos: there will be no surprises and the melodies will be well-crafted but unexceptional.. An die Einsamkeit opens interestingly enough with a set of two phrases beginning with a sustained vocal note, but moves into near-orthodoxy although the  later unexpectedly high-ranging stages put a strain on Cole’s production and pitching.  Du ungluckseliger Morgenstern is more interesting for its steady pace and its momentary forays into the relative major and melodic minor territories, even if the vocal range seems more constricted than usual.

Brewer deals efficiently with the B flat Variations.  They offer few interpretative challenges and the harpsichordist observes all repeats.  Early on, Krieger indulges us in a touch of chromaticism, but not enough to lead us too far away from the home key at any stage.  The usual suspects turn up: triplets, running semiquavers in the left hand, pseudo-canons between the hands, registral statement and response, melodic mock-angularity, two-part inventions, paring-back to a bare outline, time-signature changes, widely-spaced parallel motion: the whole box of tricks more familiar to us from Handel’s harpsichord suites.

Finally, where do the dew gatherers come into it?  It has to do with Cecrops’ daughters.  One of them, Pandrose, was goddess of the dew; one of her other sisters is named Herse, which is Greek for ‘dew’.  Interesting to know but most of this CD’s content is more earth-bound in nature than this ephemeral title suggests.


Early opera, sort of


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

November 4-5

                                                                  Karim Sulayman

Paul Dyer and his ABO brought a split personality of a show to Murdoch Hall over the weekend; on one side of interval came stately tragedy, on the other, the closest thing the High Baroque gets to a joke.  You could make a case that the two parts didn’t gel, but you are faced with the same situation on many an orchestral and chamber music program where juxtapositions of unlikely material occur regularly.  But this program succeeded chiefly through the dedication of all involved and the absence of presentation irritations that have marred previous ABO events.

The MRC audience was faced with three scenes, two by Monteverdi and one from Bach. New Zealand soprano Natasha Wilson sang in all three, as did American tenor Karim Sulayman and Danish baritone Jakob Bloch Jespersen.  Local tenor Spencer Darby sang in the opening Lamento della ninfa while actors Melanie Lindenthal and Andrew Sunter took on mute roles in the more substantial works.

Dyer and his instrumentalists – three violins, viola, cello, violone, two recorders, a lirone/viola da gamba. Tommie Andersson’s theorbo/guitar/gallichon set, harp and single percussionist – worked from an open pit on the same level as the front stalls while the usual performers’ working platform became a well-spaced arena for Charlotte Montgomery’s mutable sets: a stylized landscape for the mournful nymph, a large scaffold apparatus for Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and a cafe for Bach’s Coffee Cantata, Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht.

A three-section madrigal, the Lamento is hard to present theatrically because nothing happens.  The four  voices outline the situation of a girl left abandoned by her lover; the lady takes centre-spot for the lament with the males offering subterranean commentary, finally come  a few observations about the power of love to round out a 6-minute piece centred on an inexorable ground-bass.  With a large backdrop of a stylized landscape and some cardboard clumps of bushes, the four singers spread themselves around: fine for Wilson’s penetrating, clear voice, not so hot for the males who needed to be positioned in a solid group, if only as a solid source of complementary colour.

For Il combattimento, most of the emphasis fell on Sulayman’s Narrator who surged through Tasso’s lines with requisite fire and dramatic emphasis – in line with the composer’s directions and his music’s illustrative character.  Every so often, the tenor sacrificed precision of pitch for dramatic delivery, which might have made more sense to more people if the surtitles had translated the entire libretto.  But the single-voice experience didn’t pall, thanks to this singer’s vocal vim and textual assurance.  As in the one other staged performance I’ve sen from the national company, the two paladins remained static figures, their combat acted out at ground level by Lindenthal and Sunter in aikido costumes and equipped with staves.

Dyer’s band showed a vital flexibility in this reading, taking every chance to find and deliver the revolutionary score’s flashes of illustrative colour.  Constantine Costi’s direction had Wilson and Jespersen proceed up the scaffolding, become blindfolded as a substitute for the helmets that disguise identities in the original poem, then deliver their few lines from static postures..  In this non-naturalistic mise-en-scene, armour was nowhere to be found on the nominal protagonists  –  just bland everyday clothes, while Sulayman sported a striking red thobe and the aikido fighters wore their usual white, all-enveloping bandage-uniform.

Costi was understandably sparing with his directorial bolts from the blue but noteworthy were the collapse of  the backdrop for the Lamento to reveal the confronting scaffold set, and the dropping of a long red cloth from the top level when Clorinda is mortally wounded by her lover.  Still, like its predecessor on this program, the work is short – about 20 minutes – and, apart from the absurdity of the story and the instrumentation novelties, the presentation’s chief interest lay in Sulayman’s feat of memory and stage dominance.

Framing the two madrigals, Dyer interspersed some fragments by Monteverdi’s contemporaries.  Andersson opened with Kapsberger’s Toccata arpeggiata, curdled by percussion support that featured a wind machine, the action spreading to the lower strings before a wind-driven transition to the Lamento.  Between the Monteverdi pieces came a Falconieri ciacona of refreshing exuberance but sitting completely at odds with the two tragic stories, and Monteverdi’s own overture to Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria that occupies eight bars and can be (and was) elongated at will.  To round off the night’s first half, Dyer and his players moved immediately from Clorinda’s dying sentence to a Consonanze stravaganti by Trabaci which also took on more timbres than merely its keyboard orginal.

For the program’s second part, we vaulted forward a century to Bach’s cantata, prefaced by the first movement of his Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 with the two recorders and violin solo lines. Nobody wasted any time relishing the counterpoint in this marvellous construct, top billing going to Shaun Lee-Chen’s flight of demi-semiquavers from bar 187 to bar 208; the two recorders were sadly swamped.

There isn’t much to be done with the Coffee Cantata.  It’s just four recitatives with pendant arias, then a final recitative and concluding trio.  The Narrator (Sulayman) introduces the story; father and daughter Sclendrian (Jespersen) and Lieschen (Wilson) share three recitatives, enjoy two arias each; finally, the Narrator folds it all up and all three collaborate for the summation.  As you’d expect, the girl gets to enjoy her obsession – coffee – and the father once again copes with the inevitable.  But the score holds two splendid numbers: the soprano’s lilting last aria, Heute noch; and that last ensemble, Die Katze lasst das Mausen nicht, which is so full of sturdy bonhomie that it makes you forget – almost – the affected and pretentious industry that has grown up around the simple practice of drinking coffee.                        (L to R)     Karima Sulayman, Natasha Wilson, Jakob Bloch Jespersen

Wilson played the spoiled rich girl with convincing flair, her sprightly vocal colour suited to this transparent score.   Jespersen enjoyed his only moments of extended solo work in the night, best exercised in his Madchen, die von Harten sinnen aria where he kept exasperation and self-pity deftly harnessed.  Sulayman occupied himself with the fiddly tasks that typify your born barista – a hard ask, doing nothing for a good stretch of time – but came into his own with a light ringing sound for the concluding trio.

Yes, the company asked you to jump from deep medieval gloom to pre-Enlightenment burlesque across the night but something about Bach’s assurance and innate kindness made the transition come to a softer landing.  Finally, it is hard to speak highly enough of the ABO’s flawless support, although, if pressed, you’d have to single out Melissa Farrow’s delectable flute and its supple ornamentation as a particular delight.

Celebration of the displaced


Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

Saturday October 28

The old order changeth – or so it seems with this excellent ensemble.  For many comfortable years  –  comfortable for us admirers  –  this choir has maintained its own timbre, such that you can usually pick the group out from the ruck: piercingly true sopranos, a steady and prominent alto line, a resonant quartet of basses, and tenors that negotiate the notes, even if diffidently.  Further, the Gomberts’ control of material extended across the centuries, well past the time of their namesake and well into the last century; John O’Donnell could take his 18 singers into any landscape and make them sound content and secure.

Much of this had to do with longevity; a solid core remained in the organization’s line-up, no matter what individuals went or returned, and this continuity of service ensured that the ensemble’s calibre of performance suffered minimally, whether a program comprised Flemish masters of the early-to-mid Renaissance or moved into the realms occupied by  contemporary static Scandinavians.  On top of this, the choir began as it continued, making no compromises for the sake of attracting a wider audience but sticking to its communal last of taking up challenges and producing readings of high musicianship without the slightest trace of populism.

This single-mindedness hasn’t changed,. evident from this most recent program given on Saturday night.  O’Donnell and his singers – the number increased slightly to 19 – worked through a focused series of works by recusant composers (well, two of them were; the other used Catholicism as the public justification for his exile) who left England for the more tolerant climate of the Netherlands and Belgium.  Mind you, two of the three composers programmed got short shrift.  O’Donnell played John Bull’s Praeludium voor Laet ons met herten reijne on a chamber organ which emphasized the piece’s progress into angularity and abruptness.  But the piece lasts only about three minutes.  Peter Philips enjoyed a longer hearing with four motets, but the recital’s main emphasis fell on works by Richard Dering – 20 of them.

Right from the opening bars of Philips’ Ave verum corpus setting, you could tell that the Gomberts’ sound had changed; in this work, the suspicion turned to certainty on the word praegustatum where the advent of at least three new sopranos – new to my experience – had altered the line’s timbre, to the point where you wondered about the possibility of someone operating slightly below the set pitch. The effect was hard to pin down because, in this piece for five voices, there are two soprano lines.  Something of the same uncertainty occurred in the following Christus resurgens where the final high notes of the sopranos’ overlapping Alleluia – Fs in my music – missed out on true congruence.

Media vita, set in a more sombre, lower tessitura, made a more favourable impression, possibly because of a calmer dynamic in operation, but the last offering from this composer, Ascendit Deus, held some more flashes of rough delivery, so that the customary smoothness and consistency of product was not sustained.

For the two brackets of Dering motets, O’Donnell accompanied the choir with the provided continuo, occasionally giving his singers a brief respite with an interlude. In the first, pre-interval group, an opening brace of O bone Jesu and O nomen Jesu made a favourable impression with several passages of quietly assertive declamation.  The sopranos didn’t pick out their opening to Jesu dulcis memoria carefully enough; the tenor lines in Quando cor nostrum sounded unusually thin, then pretty tired in the second line of Desidero te millies although the chromatic slipping at the end of that motet came across with fine accomplishment.

The composer’s works proved full of surprises in word-setting, rarely lingering over a phrase and all too happy to get past an awkwardness like incompraehensaque bonitas with some dispatch.   But even a bucketful of compositional felicities could not disguise a dominance of the choir’s texture by the top line/s with an agreable murmuring from the bass quartet but no commensurately prominent counterweight; it made you long for the presence of old-time regulars like Jerzy Kozlowski and Tim Daly.

The second group of Dering motets began with a fine reading of Anima Christi which alternated solo voices with the full choir, the sudden emergence of individuals a welcome change, although something odd happened in the final speravi in te where the combined texture appeared to undergo a dynamic gap.  The same technique worked to more confident effect in the following Vox in Rama and the women’s voices carried the burden for Dixit Agnes with as much assurance and directness of address as in years past.  A fine emotional flare informed the horticultural rhapsody of rubicunda plusquam rosa, Lilio canbdidior that concluded the deceptive Ave virgo gloriosa where the singers dipped into a sequence based on the Song of Songs.

Approaching the end, the well-exercised singers found sufficient energy to outline the suspension chain in Contristatus est Rex David where the king mourns his faithless son. But the central O sanctum signum Cruce, adoramus te in Omnem super quem returned us to the opening qualms about the upper line’s pitch, a problem that continued into the final Ave Maria.

This year is the 400th anniversary of the publication of Dering’s five-voice Cantiones sacrae and I can’t imagine that another celebration of this event would be as carefully researched and prepared as this program was.  Certainly, the night shone a battery of lights in a dark place as Dering is not a name that emerges often in Catholic choral ceremonies, although he is  –  somewhat perversely  –  not so much of a stranger in the Anglican church.

The Gomberts have cut down on their Xavier College Chapel appearances in recent times; this year, they are presenting only three nights there, and mounting more programs in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Salon.  You can only hope that the new choir members settle more firmly into the body’s long-time high level of performance, even though the opportunities for such acclimatization in the rich Xavier acoustic are becoming more rare.



Tension squared


Ensemble Liaison

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday October 24

                                                                  Ensemble Liaison

For their last Melbourne appearance this year, the Liaisoners – clarinet David Griffiths, cello Svetlana Bogosavljevic, piano Timothy Young – hosted Dene Olding, recently retired concertmaster of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and lead desk  in the Goldner String Quartet.  Another guest reserved his talents until the night’s second half: lighting designer Paul Jackson who exerted an optical influence over the Messiaen quartet that gave this night its title . . .  sort of.  Fellow lighting-man Danny Pettingill contributed significantly to the visual scheme as well.

Opening Tuesday night’s bill, Bogosavljevic and Young collaborated in Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro Op. 70, originally written for horn and piano but authorised by the composer for violin, viola or cello consumption.  Simply put, the two movements sound most convincing in the original formulation, although you could not fault this cellist’s delineation of the slow opening, especially in the plangent tenor-clef higher passages where the player’s pitching proved pretty exact.  The Allegro poses a bigger problem in audibility, especially as its bold opening descending gambit is swamped by even a considerate pianist, so that the flourish tends to fade into a secondary role unless the player is capable of forcing out volume commensurate with the keyboard’s three reinforcing forte chords.  Still, the players worked their interpretation into the pages’ irresistible verve and maintained our interest through the movement’s intervening episodes.

Australian writer Samantha Wolf wrote There Is Only Now specifically for the ensemble’s forces,  Griffiths being asked to play a bass instrument as well as the regulation clarinet (B flat or A? I still find it hard to tell).  A pale, limpid texture from the cello and clarinet began the piece’s premiere hearing with some piano chords for atmospheric support, but it soon became clear that Wolf’s vocabulary offered not just impressionistic dreaming but a definite alternation between straight tonal material and passages of not-too-grating bitonality.

The work seemed to fall into three segments, the last a revisiting of the opening scene after an optimistic, rapid-moving central core.  At the end, an unexpectedly elegiac solo from Young, you realized too late (for ‘you’, read ‘I’) that Wolf had been dealing chiefly in motivic cells, not melodic arches, and the piece’s progress had featured expanded and compressed versions of these note groups.  Underlying the composition itself is a statement of faith expressed in the title but I can’t recall whether the emphasis is placed on living for the present because that’s all there is to your life, or whether each moment should be relished as a testament to one’s joy in life as it is, no matter how rough or smooth your particular situation happens to be.  Down at ground level, I admired the performers’ zeal, even though some synchronicity errors emerged in a duet of abrupt explosions between Griffiths and Young.

Olding took the lead role in the trio concert suite from Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, put together by the composer as a thank-you for the affluent amateur clarinetist Werner Reinhart who financed the staged work’s premiere.  This began well enough with a suitably jaunty inflection to The Soldier’s March.  But tension arose in the following The Soldier’s Violin when Olding’s instrument suffered a malfunction; I’m not sure what it was but it looked like his D string lost its tension and the movement had to be re-started after a considerable break.

And this had the inevitable result of making you (me) fearful of the problem recurring so that attention during The Little Concert went out the window while you  (I) kept on expecting the worst; stupidly so, as matters turned out because the violin-forefronting Tango-Waltz-Ragtime was carried off with fine flourish and dextrous responsiveness to Stravinsky’s time-signature changes and abrupt side-steps. Young realised the challenging piano part with diplomacy, Griffiths enjoying the role that the composer gave – a none-too-taxing one, even in the concluding The Devil’s Dance – to his financial backer.

We came back after interval to a Murdoch Hall filled with smoke – which had almost cleared by the time all four musicians came on stage for the Quartet for the End of Time, Messiaen’s most popular and accessible statement of faith.  The lumiere contribution to this experience was pretty bland when compared to the overwhelming son canvas but a few movements made simple dramatic points, most significantly Griffiths’ solo on Abime des oiseaux, delivered from memory and in a dark blue spot which only suggested the player’s shape.  To be honest, I’ve heard Griffiths articulate this movement with more intensity, and one of the very soft echo passages failed to travel  to my seat.

Still, Bogoisvljevic’s account of the Louange a l’Eternite de Jesus impressed for its consistency, barely a tremor noticeable in its long, stately progress. Later, you had to be exhilarated by that dangerous Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes where all four players vault in unison across Messiaen’s irregular patterns of melody and rhythm.  And Olding with Young produced a moving timbral ascension for the concluding Louange a l’Immortalite de Jesus where the composer looks towards the eternal and finds a kind of static ecstasy.

Despite the moderate colour scheme – reds mainly, with an appealing white-and-cream for the excellent violin and cello octave duet in the Vocalise, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps – this performance worked at its best in dialectically extreme moments: long essays in stasis or pithy and controlled explosions of action.  What was surprising on this occasion was how quickly the score was completed.  Many of us would have experienced readings that seemed to stretch out till the crack of doom, but this version from the Liaison and guest Olding seemed almost brisk.   Or possibly we’ve become inured over the years to Messiaen’s penchant for longueurs when delineating his own soul’s theological odyssey.


November Diary

Wednesday November 1


Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College at  7:30 pm

Last Melbourne appearance for the year from Kathy Selby and her kaleidoscope of cobbers and she has moved operations from Deakin Edge in Federation Square to MLC.  Suits me: it’s a five-minute walk away.  I wonder how many of the group’s loyal followers will be trekking out to Hawthorn/Kew; here’s hoping there’s no fall-off, but an increase.  For this inaugural Tatoulis Auditorium recital, it’s piano quartets all the way: Turina’s solitary effort in A minor, the G minor first of Mozart’s two, and the E flat second of Dvorak’s brace.  Guests tonight are all Sydney Symphony Orchestra members: violinist Andrew Haveron from the concertmaster’s desk, principal viola Tobias Breider, and principal cellist Umberto Clerici.   Now that’s an imposing set of visitors, all used to dominant roles.  Should be a powerful end to an always enjoyable, illuminating and – in this new ambience – plushly comfortable experience.

Thursday November 2


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

There’s nothing like the Symphony No. 9 for warming the communal heart cockles; its choral finale has been used and abused by modern-day advertisers and a hideous gaggle of sports promoters over recent decades but nothing beats the stop-start excitement of the work’s final strophes.   Not forgetting – although most do – the superb drama of the preceding three movements.   This is billed as the Season Finale Gala, which it almost is, if you leave out about half-a-dozen later programs.   Benjamin Northey gets his chance at this big canvas, the MSO Chorus on hand for the fireworks, and a cast of all-Australian soloists: a wonder these days and not the case with the MSO’s real season end –  Handel’s Messiah in December.  Tonight, we’ll hear soprano Jacqueline Porter, mezzo Liane Keegan, tenor Henry Choo (good luck with the Alla marcia, sport), and bass Shane Lowrencev.  For starters, Northey conducts John Adams’ Absolute Jest where the Australian String Quartet and the MSO indulge in the American composer’s take on Beethoven scherzos and other non-funny works; rib-tickling it ain’t but a 25-minute construct that keeps referring to Beethoven and winding up in a game of Guess The Movement.

This program will be repeated on Friday November 3.


Saturday November 4


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

I don’t know about Monteverdi and the bittersweet, let alone if such an emotionally catholic composer was ever obsessed.  Nor does the idea of over-centric preoccupation come to mind when thinking of Bach, although you could have cause to re-think when considering A Musical Offering and Art of Fugue.  But this assorted program from the Brandenburgers could throw some new light on both composers’ psyches.  The night opens with the Italian composer’s Lamento della ninfa, a four-part madrigal from Book VIII of Monteverdi’s output.  It requires a soprano, especially for the exposed central section where the poor nymph carries out her plaint – in this case, Natasha Wilson – with a choir of two tenors and a bass.  Well, we have one tenor scheduled in Karim Sulayman from the US, and another in our own Spencer Darby, with Denmark’s Jakob Bloch Jespersen giving bass support.  Then the ABO gets involved with Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda: a scena, also from Book VIII and requiring two tenors and soprano to tell this Tasso-inspired story of Christian murder.   Finally, Bach provides some light in his Coffee Cantata, which is really a one-act opera in ten parts asking for Wilson to sing the addicted Lieschen,  Jespersen to take on the part of her grumpy father Schlendrian, and one of the tenors to fill in as the Narrator who tops and helps tail the work.

This program will be repeated on Sunday November 5 at 5 pm


Sunday November 12


Trio Anima Mundi

Holy Trinity Anglican Church, East Melbourne at 3 pm

I’ve neglected these people shamefully but, if you miss one of their recitals, it’s a long time between drinks because they only give two programs a year: first in Geelong, then, after a few weeks’ break, repeating it in this East Melbourne church.  The personnel – pianist Kenji Fujimura, violinist Rochelle Ughetti, cellist Noella Yan – are ranging pretty widely in their definition of what constitutes an outsider.  They include Haydn, here represented by his Piano Trio No. 10 in A Major, because he lived a fair part of his life in the geographically situated Hungarian wilds of Esterhaza . . . which was true for 25 years but didn’t stop him being the most celebrated composer in Europe.   Rutland Boughton’s Celtic Prelude represents – briefly – a composer of high integrity who had considerable success founding an opera festival at Glastonbury but eventually became suspect because of his Communist sympathies; surprising he stood out at all for this political disposition in post-World War I Britain.  Also being played is Alfred Schnittke’s Trio – originally for strings but later arranged for the piano trio combination; like pretty much every Soviet-era composer, Schnittke fell foul of the authorities, eventually migrating to Hamburg, although the Russian state re-claimed him after his death.  The Trio Anima Mundi’s 2017  Composition Prize-winning work will also be performed on this full-program.


Tuesday November 14

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Rachel Podger

Musica Viva

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Podger is actually directing this well-credentialled period music band which operates without a regular conductor in full democratic mode; atypical for this genre of organization, although not unheard of.   This will be the fourth in a series of eight concerts across the country under the MV umbrella, all of which comprise the same program: Podger as soloist/leader in Mozart’s first and last violin concertos, Haydn’s three-movement Lamentatione Symphony in D minor, and a J. C. Bach Symphony in G minor (presumably the Op. 6 No. 6).  Is this the OAL’s first Australian visit?  Whatever the case, the body has a long pedigree packed with notable guest directors and soloists and it will be interesting to see how large a body fronts up to the Recital Centre.

This program will be repeated on Saturday November 18


Wednesday November 15

Emma Kirkby with Jakob Lindberg

Great Performers

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Kirkby seems to have been around for years.  She is certainly a senior citizen among the ranks of British singers and her fame rests mainly in the early music field; among her collaborators have been the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, appearing a night before her in the Recital Centre.   Tonight she is sponsored by the MRC itself, one of their Great Performers for the year.   Accompanied by lutenist Jakob Lindberg, she will be amplifying on their 2007 CD collaboration with a program of English, French, Spanish and Italian works of the Renaissance, leaching into the early Baroque.  But then, Kirkby can’t help retracing her steps, as she has sung pretty much everything in the repertoire at some time or other, not least with her former partner, Anthony Rooley.   For purity of intonation and clarity of articulation, you have to look far and wide to find her equal.


Thursday November 16


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Plenary Hall at 7:30 pm

Dealing with one of the most recognizable film scores of modern times, the MSO is moving out of Hamer Hall to cope with the hordes who want to re-experience the Harry Potter films with a live soundtrack underpinning.   Is this the city’s biggest performance space with a decent acoustic?   I reckon so, although there’ll be the usual amplification chicanery going on.   I don’t know why I’m bothering with this entry, though: both performances are sold out.  You can put your name down on a wait list, apparently.

This program will be repeated on Saturday November 18 at 1 pm


Friday November 17


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Plenary Hall at 7:30 pm

On the other hand, you can still book seats to this, the second in the Harry Potter experience where you get to see Voldemort in the personage of Tom Riddle and you also witness the incomparable Dumbledore of Richard Harris for the last time.  Needless to say, the score is largely a reprise of the first film’s content, although the basilisk sequence has some exhilarating novelties.   Moreover, a large part of the arrangement was carried out by William Ross as John Williams was swamped with work at the time.   What is the attraction of these live soundtrack experiences?   You’ll never know until you try but I suspect part of it comes down to the communal experience of sitting in a theatre with several thousand other people and watching a total familiarity where all the jokes are still worth a laugh and the thrills are somehow more compelling when seen on the big screen. Or it could be the sensation of watching expert musicians at work for once.

This program will be repeated on Saturday November 18 at 7:30 pm


Sunday November 19


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm

It’s Peter Ilyich till you’ve had an ample sufficiency.  The main  and unadulterated element is the Serenade for Strings where the melodies run rampant throughout its four irreplaceable movements; always a joy to hear from a devoted band, and they don’t come more ready-for-purpose than William Hennessy’s ensemble.   And, of course, we have the arrangements: MCO favourite composer/orchestrator Nicholas Buc’s version of the three-movement Souvenir d’un lieu cher set for violin solo and strings replacing the original’s piano, then some of Rostislav Dubinsky’s string settings of the Album for the Young Op. 39 – your guess is as good as mine about which ones will emerge because Dubinsky certainly arranged all 24 of these miniatures for string quartet.   Hennessy kicks off his afternoon with Arensky’s Variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky: seven of them plus a coda based around the fifth of the composer’s Sixteen Children’s Songs.   Deviating from the main motif, the MCO will play another arrangement for strings of Shostakovich’s early Three Fantastic Dances, the composer’s first piano pieces.  Shane Chen, first violin in the Flinders Quartet, will be soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir.

This program will be repeated on Thursday November 23 in the Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm.


Thursday November 23


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Returning to a well-tilled field, the MSO will race through a work they have made a specialty in their repertoire since the days of Hiroyuki Iwaki.   Something about its spacious lyricism and harnessed nervousness brings out the best in these players when they launch into Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor.   Tonight they are conducted by Stanislav Kochanovsky, a native of St. Petersburg in his mid-thirties and already well-established as a notable opera conductor – to the extent that the poor fellow comes to us fresh from directing a Barrie Kosky production of Eugene Onegin in Zurich.  Kochanovsky opens his Melbourne debut with Schumann’s Manfred Overture, then the night’s soloist, Swedish soprano Lisa Larsson, expounds music by one of her countrymen and regular collaborator, Rolf Martinsson: Ich denke dein . . . , settings of five poems by Goethe, Rilke and Eichendorff, written expressly for Larsson in 2014

This program will be repeated on Saturday November 25 at 2 pm.


Friday November 24


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Back for his annual stint in the halls of ANAM, British violinist Anthony Harwood is heading an evening of chamber works that begin with Mozart’s Piano Trio in G Major  – one of the five definites and two possibles in the composer’s catalogue (this is the K. 496 with the six-variations finale).  Marwood and his as-yet-unknown colleagues end with Dvorak’s third – and last – String Quintet, that in E flat which asks for a second viola; a requirement that might prove attractive for the ensemble’s versatile leader.   In the centre comes Erwin Schulhoff’s String Sextet, finished in 1924 after a long gestation and one of the ill-fated composer’s most impressive if sombre works.


Friday November 30


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 8 pm

It’s great to see the MSO break out of its overture/concerto/symphony straitjacket for these events at the MRC which seem to be left in the hands of the body’s two concertmasters.  Tonight is Eoin Andersen’s turn at the helm and he starts with a great seasonal opening; no, not Vivaldi, but Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in F Major in which he will be accompanied by Stefan Cassomenos, last heard at September’s Music in the Round Festival thundering through Liszt’s arrangement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.  Expanding the timbre field a tad will be Copland’s Appalachian Spring in the original version for 13 instruments: an American voice speaking in firm and resonant notes with a humanity and emotional truth that give promise of better times to come, a national harbinger of a resurgence in robust ethics out of the present sewer.  Finally, Andersen takes the solo spot in an arrangement for violin and strings of Piazzolla’s Four Seasons in Buenos Aires where I defy you to point to any significant difference between the movements in any parameter that counts.

This program will be repeated in Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University on Saturday December 1 at 8 pm




Calm if not static


Kitty Xiao

Move Records MCD 562

Comprising five works by Australian composer Xiao, this disc is a no-frills product with no information about the works themselves, nor any biographical details about the players.  What you get are a set of atmosphere-rich vignettes, mainly for the Nimbus Trio personnel: Xiao on piano, Cameron Jamieson playing violin, Jessica Laird working with the standard three flutes.  For the final piece, Solstice 1, Luke Carbon’s bass clarinet joins the mix.  I’d heard the first two of these tracks in a composer’s concert about 18 months ago but the memories are faint.  Incidentally, the disc’s duration is a tad short of 43 minutes

For some of her constructs, Xiao has drawn inspiration from certain photographers. The CD’s cover, above, features Australian photographer Jane Brown’s Bushfire Landscape II, Lake Mountain, Victoria, 2010 and this shot provided the impetus for the album’s title (and longest) track.  For this, Laird uses the alto flute, beginning with shakuhachi-type exhalations to the accompaniment of violin shimmers  and questing piano chords; a slow, adagio-style meditation settles onto a violin scrap that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Dies irae plainchant, which mercifully moves along an individual path rather than simply into a straight trio setting.  The instrumental interplay gives each contributor plenty to work with, although the first climactic moments find the piano and violin almost oppressively in synchronicity.

Xiao is pretty conservative when it comes to harmony.  Structures are easy to penetrate and she uses ambiguous timbral possibilities with discretion, making much of the flute’s potential for plosive, breathy accents.  At the central pages of Novum, the movement becomes more insistent with a steady sextuple pattern from the keyboard while the violin winds its way above it, before the three instruments revert to the Dies irae motif and another Romantic stentorian burst of rhetoric, both violin and flute trilling over solid piano chords before the piece’s positive concluding affirmation that begins with a soft ascent from flute and piano into something approaching a curt hymn.

Whether Xiao aims to give a kind of musical illustration to the tragedy behind Brown’s photo of the aftermath to Marysville’s 2009 destruction – the fire begins, the ascendant catastrophe, a concluding consolation – is up to any listener to decide.  Perhaps the composer is more intent on suggesting states of mind, in the best Beethoven Pastoral manner, rather than launching into musical pictures in contravention of Stravinsky’s dictum about the expressive abilities of music in general.  Whatever the interpretation, Novum is an easy piece to take on board and has plenty of interest in its progress for any potential executants.

Nipper is a shorter work, a little over half as long as Novum.  Its title refers to photos by Walkley Award winner Narelle Autio; I’ve found three in a series but there may be more.  All are underwater, the angle looking up at submerged swimmers who seem to be wearing life-saver caps – which gives an added dimension to the title in this country.  The piano opens with some impressionistic rumblings and leads the flute into a long arching melody with a supporting commentary from the violin.  The flowing effect stops for what could be confrontation with rocks or a beach drill exercise for the squad.

Xiao shows in  the central pages of this piece a tendency, or a preference, for doubling melodic lines, which heightens tension as the texture becomes more driven and insistent. But the overall effect is summery, in some places languorous, with the piano always ready with repeated washes to bring you back to the water’s edge, and beyond.  Eventually the patterns take over and the work reduces itself to pure colour before a strong slow waltz brings back suggestions of marine power.   A Debussyan coda dissolves the scene placidly.

The third piece that has a reference to photography is Nimbus, the CD’s opening track, but I can’t find any such photo in the catalogue of either Autio or Brown; just as well, because this marrying of visual image with sound leads you to forget the music itself – which explains the high success of Richard Strauss’s orchestral music.   Whatever its inspiration – cloud or halo  –  this is the shortest track here at less than 5 1/2 minutes, and it begins very simply as a piano/flute duet before the violin enters in short canon with the violin.  The piano maintains the step-like pace, eventually moving to a less rigid 4/4-type rhythm, although triplets enjoy something close to over-use.  Here is another piece which presents no difficulties to the listener, although the intra-instrumental mirroring moves into the predictable, with a frisson-filled tension before a hefty piano solo/cadenza finishes the Nimbus experience with pattern-work that somehow leaves you unsatisfied; why, I don’t know, given the evanescent suggestions in the title.

Emei falls in length somewhere between Nimbus and Nipper.  This has a definite extra-musical reference   –  to Mount Emei, the highest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains to be found in China, an age-old pilgrimage destination and apparently the site where all that Shaolin self-defence business began, immortalised for some of us by the television series from the early 1970s, Kung Fu, with David Carradine playing a mendicant monk in 19th century America.   A flute (bass?) opens the work before the violin and piano enter playing a melodic line that starts by sounding like a left-over from Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro but more four-square in outline.  The instruments reach a climactic point which suggests Brahms before the flute leads into a new melodic stream, another strong climax before a whimsical pastorale in triple time changes the pace.  A further segment of strong unison work (or nearly so) before some discords and a tension-releasing D flat 6th chord signifies journey’s end.  Is it a travelogue score of sorts, depicting the various stages the climber encounters during the ascent?  Could be, but it does have the CD’s least adventurous score.

Finally, Xiao’s Solstice I, over 11 minutes, is the second-most substantial work on offer.  It starts with what sounds like some flute over-blowing but in fact signifies the arrival of Luke Carbon’s bass clarinet; Laird takes no part in this work.  At all events, the initial atmosphere is placid, full of softness and quiescence before the piano and violin enter with an open-ended theme for elaboration.  Several distinct episodes follow although you are hard-pressed to find much that is new, i.e. any sounds you have not encountered in the preceding four pieces, apart from the bass clarinet colour which, outside two powerful moments of full-bodied playing, can be all-too-reminiscent of  Laird’s lower-pitched instruments.  The violin line suffers a slight intonative flaw at about the 8:15 mark, but it also is given what I think are the only octave double-stops on the CD, and these serve as a  reminder of how staid are Xiao’s vocabulary and palette.  She is not given to rapidity or flashes of colour but offers an ongoing contrast, especially in this Solstice I, between feather-;light textures and sturdy declamations, although the former have the edge.  A worthy showing, even if the products tend to emotional similarity.

Dark consolations


Songmakers Australia

Melbourne Recital Centre

Wednesday October 4

                                                                  Merlyn Quaife

As depressing programs go, this hour’s music-making was remarkably positive and seamlessly organised.  Andrea Katz’s brainchild, Songmakers Australia, on this Slavs-only night featured two of the organization’s stalwarts in soprano Merlyn Quaife and tenor Andrew Goodwin, with mezzo Christina Wilson stepping in for regular Sally-Anne Russell.  Supported by Katz’s resolute accompaniment, these artists shared the first half’s honours in pairs of songs and duets by Glinka, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Kabalevsky although Goodwin enjoyed both duets as well as two solos while the female singers each had a duet collaboration and two solitary exposures.

None of this material was familiar – well, not to me.   Glinka, despite being the fons et origo of Russian music after the Enlightenment remains a mystery man in this country, apart from a couple of overtures, so the two extracts from his cycle A Farewell to St. Petersburg, Cradle Song and The Lark, whetted the appetite for more because of their individualistic lyrical attractiveness.  Quaife took the vocal line in the first but Goodwin joined in with a contribution I can’t trace; there’s a version for voice, cello and piano but this one for two voices and keyboard I can’t track down.

Similarly, The Lark  seemed to have Goodwin as its main protagonist while Wilson provided vocal counterpoint, but finding a two-voice version proved impossible, although the final line for tenor and mezzo in this piece made for one of the recital’s high-points for its emotional warmth and ideal balance.   And for those of us who thought Tchaikovsky’s melancholy sprang solely from an idiosyncratic personality, think again: the seeds are here, even in these two emotionally unpretentious songs.

As for Tchaikovsky, Goodwin sang one of the Sixteen Songs for Children, starting with Winter Evening, which opens benignly enough before moving into a grimmer landscape where a happy fireside domesticity gives way to reminders that, outside, the world is a stark place for the unfortunate.  Katz seized upon the postlude, giving it a confronting intensity and force that matched Goodwin’s unabashed rhetoric in Pleshcheyev’s two final stanzas. Then, the cycle’s next song, The Cuckoo, has an equally fortissimo conclusion and Goodwin surged through his page of onomatopoeic duplets while the piano thundered out its – approval? disapproval? impatience? or just an old-fashioned hurry to get to the end?

The two Mussorgsky pieces came from The Nursery song cycle and produced the most interesting music in this part of the recital, probably because of the composer’s lack of concern for the voice as anything but a vehicle for words.  Quaife sang the opening piece in the sequence, With Nurse, and made a mobile enough creature of this stop-start monologue with plenty of expressive detail and a well-etched contrast between the two verses.  She also sang the last completed piece in the two-part cycle, The Cat ‘Sailor’; another of the more striking settings of the composer’s own verses, this illustrated even more readily Mussorgsky’s craft in setting a text to a fitting melodic structure, the song moving from a regular rhythmic pattern to a near-parlando mode of action, well realised by both artists with a minimum of dynamic over-gilding.

As for the Kabalevsky pair, both given by Wilson, these came from the composer’s unexceptionable, if unexceptional, set of Seven Nursery Rhymes: There was an old woman, and I saw a ship a-sailing.  The first introduced us to the mezzo whose production was unflustered if unchallenged by this material, although her middle range has little distinctiveness about it, least of all in this context where Katz again gave full vent to an active piano component. .  The second piece, not a particularly interesting bagatelle. seemed to be toeing the party line in its Soviet schmaltz, although Wilson enjoyed the undemanding experience.

After this octet came Shostakovich’s From Jewish Folk Poetry Op. 79, a deliberately sombre group of 11 songs written in the shade of the Holocaust, the 1948 Zhdanov denunciation of the composer (and others), and Stalin’s imposition of the Nazis’ Final Solution on his country’s Jewish population.  The sequence stands alone in Shostakovich’s output in its lack of a mediating filter, for its bitterness at his nation’s polity and his total sympathy with the victims of a state-run universal pogrom, and for a close identification with Jewish folk and klezmer musics.  This interpretation played with a straight bat, not overloading the tragedy that underpins every section of the cycle, in spite of some mordant humour in The good life and the final Happiness.  No, this singing trio  concentrated on direct simplicity and an unbending strength of delivery, eschewing the temptation to opt for sentimentality in wrenching pages like those in Lamentation for a dead child, Cradle song, and Winter.

In this performing context, Quaife was most comfortable, contributing significantly to the first two songs: duets with Wilson that began with hectic mourning, then moved to the similarly nervous reassurance of an ailing child.  Wilson’s solo Cradle song made its points concerning isolation and exile with plangent simplicity, although you might have asked for a more synchronous partnership at some of the ritardandi points.  Quaife and Goodwin worked through Before a long separation with an engrossing juxtaposition of despair and resignation expressed in a driving alternation of apostrophes before both voices join in the same plaint: the individuals representing the generations of lovers and families torn apart by an indifferent officialdom.

You became more conscious with each passing number what a dour world that Shostakovich is illustrating.  Quaife’s urgent Warning stood for every mother protecting her child from temptation as well as from the dark terrors that stalk the unwitting object of persecution.  The following The abandoned father for Wilson and Goodwin could have been amusing, a  Goldberg and Schmuyle study for the 20th century, except for its underpinning message of familial abandonment and disloyalty.

The musical atmosphere remains ironic in Song of misery which Goodwin negotiated with his trademark unrelenting clarity as he presented pastoral pictures, unexceptional in themselves, but hiding a depth of suffering and starvation; which is continued through all three voices in Winter where, at the conclusion to Goodwin’s description of an ill wife and child, the trio mourn the advent of a death-ridden season.  Goodwin proceeded to outline a Schubert-reminiscent The good life with a firm directness of address, contrasting the bad old days with the new age of the collective farm, the death-throes of Tsarist Russia turning into the Golden Age of Communism, suffering transmuted into mindlessness.

Quaife achieved even better in the penultimate Song of the girl where the cattle-herd seems to mimic a Song of the Auvergne in a picture of bucolic content until, at the end, we realize that this gaiety and high spirits are false, compulsorily imposed on singer.  Finally, Wilson bore the brunt of Happiness which should offer an optimistic uplift by depicting the cliches of worldly success and contentment, but the biting music shows that these are all false and the old pain from random murder and continual persecution lie just below the surface; for Russian Jewry, no ‘star shines above our heads now.’

The most significant quality of this cycle’s rendition was its non-stop nature, the songs merging with chilling effectiveness and bite as their surfaces cracked to reveal a nightmare world where words cannot be taken at face value and an eminently singable, even popular-sounding music veers on collapse into a dirge.  For anybody inclined to diminish Shostakovich’s negotiation of a knife-edge path of survival through the years of Stalin, this cycle stands as testimony to the composer’s compassion and anger at what was so obviously a disgrace and shame for the world after the revelations of 1945 but which continued without qualms of conscience for further decades behind the Iron Curtain.

And for those sad moral delinquents who think politics and music don’t mix, they should look on this wrenching song-cycle and (hopefully) despair.  Songmakers Australia has informed my year significantly by presenting it and accomplishing the undertaking with admirable fidelity.

Chausson ideal, Prokofiev not so much


Markiyan and Oksana Melnychenko

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday September 26

                                                                Markiyan Melnychenko

For their recital in the MRC Salon, the Melnychenkos covered almost as much territory as other duos are happy to handle in a full recital-with-interval.  Well, sort of: the addition of another major work might have exercised this audience’s endurance but not by much because the responses were very warm to all four programmed items.  In fact, the musicians played three repertoire staples as well as a brief curiosity and, for long stretches, any auditor would have been quite happy with the experience.

Markiyan is the violinist in this pairing, Oksana the pianist.  To my mind, the event’s first offering proved to be the most rewarding: Chausson’s Poeme – originally with orchestral accompaniment but then arranged by the composer for this combination, with other writers offering improvements as the work achieved its deserved popularity until these times when it has become a staple in every professional player’s repertoire.  The piano’s role, however improved, is subsidiary to the solo string and Markiyan Melnychenko impressed straight away after the sombre introduction with a gripping account of the first solo – unaccompanied and not difficult but immediately loaded with character and giving evidence of this player’s admirably firm bowing work.

Even when the score progresses to those rich double-stop bars inspired by the dedicatee Ysaye – the Animato at Number 11 in my Breitkopf & Hartel imprint – you were treated to a smooth delivery without a hint of scratch or scrape.  Indeed, the violinist’s enunciation proved near-flawless at those moments of exposure and/or peril, like the cadenza that Chausson interpolated early on, and the soaring high-set lines that reach their conclusion in the set of trills starting on a low B flat bringing the Poeme to its muted resolution.  Here was a controlled and metrically disciplined account of a favourite that often suffers – just like many similar products of its time and genre – from sloppy sentimentality and a devil-may-care attitude to the bar-line.

In comparison, the following Debussy Violin Sonata made a less favourable impact.  It’s a hard piece to get right, particularly in this environment where, to play safe, a pianist might make constant use of the left pedal for fear of manufacturing a glutinous texture or sounding over-prominent.  The opening to the Allegro vivo sounded sprightly enough but the movement’s centre found both artists inflicting heavy treatment on pages that don’t need power.  From the first Meno mosso where the key signature changes to E Major, Debussy is operating in a kind of atmospheric susurrus, a restrained mesh which is meant to sound light and transparent; the effect here was mobile but muddy.

Nor did the Intermede offer much better.  For one thing, it was taken at a pretty fast pace, which suited the violinist but found the pianist working too hard in chordal sequences like bars 29 to 33 or in potentially whimsical passages like the 16 bars before Number 3 in the Durand edition.  This over-emphatic attack also brought an unnecessary tension to the finale where Debussy’s contrapuntal interplay gets quite complex, to the point where you relished the violin’s abrupt unaccompanied flights in 9/16.  Soft passages like the chain that follow the direction au Mouvement initial lacked the expected delicacy, although the players recovered some finesse of attack by the time of that magical Meno mosso move to E Major.

Prokofiev provided the evening’s second half, beginning with the first of the Six Pieces from Cinderella, Op. 102; this is the third suite of piano solo extracts from the ballet and I didn’t know it had been arranged for violin/piano duet.  In this format, the waltz sounded very effective, the string line taking melodic responsibilities but also adding a good deal to the slightly manic impetus  that the composer invested in this scene where the private and public overlap to brilliant if alarming effect.  If for nothing else, the extract gave Markiyan Melnychenko an opportunity to display his gift for urging out long lyrical sweeps of fabric not dependent on a hefty vibrato.

With the Sonata in D Major, co-opted for Oistrakh from the Flute Sonata, the piano contribution again erred on the side of heft and a forceful dynamic.  The partners worked with certainty through the opening Moderato‘s exposition but things took a turn for the hectic during the development, notably when Prokofiev changes his key signature to B flat Major/G minor and the action involves chromatic creep and an increase in linear tension.  It struck me that both performers were again pushing what is a pretty simple work, in terms of construction and atmosphere, on to a more weighty plane that it deserved.

The Scherzo would have gained, like the Debussy Intermede, from a more brisk staccato and a softer dynamic.  In the music I have for the work, there is no request for anything beyond mezzo-forte from the keyboard until the D flat chords four bars before Number 14; as it was, this presto impressed as lumpen-footed, lacking biting humour or acerbic spark.  Still, the D Major interlude/Trio was accomplished with sympathy and polish, in particular Markiyan Melnychenko’s quadruple stops and quiet, present harmonics.

Both musicians gave the Andante its space and showed a well-controlled dynamic balance, notably in the long central pages where triplets are the order of the day; their subsiding into that marvellous, simply-achieved drift down a chromatic scale at Figure 31 impressed also for its sweetness of timbre from the violin and gentle underpinning from Oksana Melnychenko.

Both musicians enjoyed the vigour of Prokofiev’s concluding Allegro con brio but a good deal of this sonata section came across as strident.  As with many another reading of this work, the deceleration at Figure 37 struck me as unnecessary; as far as I can see, the composer only wants a change of pace twice during this movement  –  for the rest of the time, it makes sense in the actual music itself to maintain a steady metre.  The final eight bars would have gained a good deal in accuracy if the tempo initially adopted had been more considered and the sustaining pedal not so readily employed.  Yes, Prokofiev has a reputation as a seeker after the percussive, but not in this elegant if sometimes ebullient score.

I’ve heard Markiyan Melnychenko in larger combinations before this and found plenty to admire in the accuracy of his pitching and the finesse of his delivery, the technical and emotional control evident no matter how ardent the composer’s temperament.  Of course, these qualities emerged often in this particular night’s work but it seemed as if both musicians were making hard work of their music-making –  like the Debussy which should shimmer with energy, not be delivered with gritty determination and hard-edged insistence.