A blessing, lullabies and a prayer

KARIN SCHAUPP

Musica Viva

Saturday August 22

                                                                 Karin Schaupp

‘Schaupp has been a stalwart of this country’s guitar world for close to 40 years: in her own right as a soloist, as a concerto performer with state orchestras, and as a collaborator with musicians like Umberto Clerici and the Flinders Quartet.   On Saturday evening, she presented this no-frills recital from her home with nobody else but a recording technician in the room with her.   Great to see that Musica Viva has embraced the new model of mounting spartan events: one performer providing her own space and not playing too much in case of mental overload in a time of musical famine.

Schaupp’s choice of diet spanned a wide time range, opening with a brace of Scarlatti sonatas and taking in some modern classics of the guitar repertoire, with a side-step to Australian composer Richard Charlton’s Suspended in a Sunbeam, written for this performer last year.    Of course, some of these pieces have become familiar from the artist’s CDs: Scarlatti’s Keyboard Sonata K. 208 (L. 238), Brahms’ Wiegenlied and Llobet’s El Noy de la Mare (the lullabies), Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios by Barrios, and Leo Brouwer’s Elogio de la Danza.   These date from at least a decade ago in Schaupp’s recording career; apart from the freshly-minted Charlton piece, the program’s other unrecorded works came as no surprise:  the BWV 1000 Fugue in A minor for lute by Bach, and an extra Scarlatti sonata, K 322 (L. 483), which was more successful as a guitar transcription than the other sonata by this composer performed here.

After a Musica Viva-lauding address by a ‘suit’ whom I didn’t recognize, being distracted by negotiating volume and access to scores,  Schaupp began operations with one of those remembrances or salutes to indigenous land rights – a gesture that has quickly become a behavioural cliché which could even be well-intentioned but which never fails to annoy because of its tokenism.   Remember those sad white people in Clifton Hill who put plaques on their houses noting that their lots really belonged to the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung, only to have some Aboriginal people knocking on doors and laying claim to those boastful houses?   They were invited in for cups of tea, which says all you need to know about the depth of such acknowledgements.

Both the Scarlatti works were arranged by Schaupp herself and the ‘Adagio e cantabile‘ K. 208 made for an amiable opening with both repeats observed.   My only quibble was the avoiding of the 5-note chord that ends bar 13; well, not so much an avoiding but an impossibility, given the instrument’s low operating level at that point.  The faster K. 322 is better-known among keyboard players and is gifted with one of those trademark Scarlatti passages of courtly play from bar 36 to the half-way point, and again from bar 73 to the end; the harmonic transparency at these points came over with particularly gratifying clarity in Schaupp’s interpretation

Are you uncertain about the provenance of Bach’s works for lute?  Join the club.  Before the Early Music Brigade got under way, Segovia cruelled the authenticists’ pitch by transposing, transcribing and transliterating a good deal of Bach’s music.   He didn’t leave Scarlatti untouched either, making a popularly-used guitar version of the L. 483, the second of Schaupp’s offerings.

The G minor Fugue, well-known in a violin version, is taken up a tone by most guitarists, I believe; Bach might have moved it himself, for all I know.   Schaupp played a pretty clean reading with some passing glitches in bars 44 and 47 but with an otherwise sustained accuracy, reaching a well-prepared climactic point at bar 59 and onward, then realising the smothered tension of the suspensions in bars 93 and 94 before the sudden near-cadenza in the penultimate measure.   Here was a measured interpretation without imposed theatrics or a resonance-besotted bass line; rather, the lines were delivered with balance and dynamic control.

Schaupp’s husband, Giac Giacomantonio, arranged the Brahms piece for her and expanded the song to three verses.   No surprises here, even if the piano accompaniment’s slight syncopations  did not appear to survive the move.   With the arrival of its companion piece by Llobet, we entered the realm of straight guitar music, this work and what followed all original compositions.   Not that there is much more to the Spanish composer’s Catalan folk-song arrangement than there is to the Brahms lied: one page divided into two halves, one work in 6/8 and the other in 3/4, both placid in emotion (as you’d expect).    It was hard to determine why Schaupp seemed so anxious to get off the final D of bar 6, or why the lower notes of the thirds that end bar 5 didn’t resonate.   But then, I didn’t register whether or not they appeared at the bar 7 repetition.   A simple piece, but a pleasure to come across something which takes into account the instrument’s potential for colour and chord spacing.

With Brouwer’s two-movement Elogio, Schaupp jumped into a contemporary stream; even though the work dates from 1964, the Cuban composer speaks an adventurous language which takes dissonances in its stride. at odd points verging on twelve-tone writing although pedal points and the first movement’s Major 7th characteristic argues for a tendency towards a tonal centre.   The executant employed plenty of rubato in the opening Lento, which is a kind of tribute to dance in its juxtaposed flashes of motion and near-stasis, the whole comprising a mobile core surrounded by pairs of ten bars showing relative quiescence. 

Brouwer’s second movement obstinato deals, like the first, in gruppetti, but here much more aggressively.   The entire movement hurtles forward, notably in the central Vivace in 2/4 which reaches a climax in a vehement repeated rasgueado chord before returning to the rapid, metre-changing material that began the movement, followed by a vivace coda. Schaupp displayed an excellent command of this demanding work, at ease with its many  jumps in emotional and technical content, building an impressive structure in each movement while showing no hesitation in vaulting between Brouwer’s juxtapositions of the frenetic with one-line meditation.

Charlton’s work takes its inspiration from a 1994 Carl Sagan speech about the Earth and its position in the cosmos.   The Australian composer subtitles his piece Thoughts on the ‘Pale Blue Dot, as photographed by Voyager 1, and he interpolates in the music a text of his own composition with two brief Sagan excerpts.   Charlton gives his performer (guitarist and speaker in one, preferably, as here) leeway to pronounce the words over pauses or repeated patterns; Schaupp, the work’s dedicatee and commissioner, showed a reassuring ease with the score.   A good deal of its progress is spasmodic, the accompaniment to the text tersely episodic but hard to take in because the words get in the way.  Charlton inserts two passages where the speaking stops and the musical content presents as more sequential and lyrical.    You come across some moving passages, as when the composer returns to lyricism after the speaker comments on the ‘cosmic dark’ of our universe, and at the work’s end where the last chords present an affirmation of our small-scale existence on the rim of infinity.

Barrios’ tremolo study seems to be a rite of passage for every aspiring guitarist but it has an underlying sweetness of melody that complements the middle fingers’ exercise work.  I liked Schaupp’s interpretation which gave a necessary stress to the middle-range arpeggios – the tune, if you like – rather than belting out the bass dotted minims that open nearly every bar, or over-emphasizing the efficiency of her top tremolo.   Mind you, she had given us her view of the work in a prefatory talk, finding a ‘prayer’ in this music.  Which may well be the case, if only for the consolatory turn to E Major at bar 56 and he ‘Amen’ coda at bar 72.   Certainly, it brought this brief recital to a satisfying conclusion: rounding out a trip from the firm benediction of a brilliantly constructed fugue to the touching vision of an old woman asking for alms  –  all too relevant a backdrop to this year of disasters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opera writ small

EVA

Eva Kong and Alex Raineri

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday August 15     

                                                                       Eva Kong

This was the second of two recitals I intended to review over last weekend.   The first, a Friday night exercise from Sydney with flautist Sally Walker and pianist Simon Tedeschi, comprised a bevy of (mainly) French pieces.   But my account with the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall asked for a new password, then refused to accept anything I proposed and, by the time an MDCH technician got back to me (after an assuring message that the company was ‘on the case’), the recital had already started.   No recommendations, then, for Cloudmix who somehow stuffed up a connection that has lasted since the beginning of the Melbourne series; so much for trying to help Australian musicians through this organization.

No such difficulty with the Brisbane Festival; just a pity that this body can only offer one recital a fortnight.  The latest featured Korean-born soprano Kong who is better known for her opera appearances, particularly as Chiang Ch’ing in John Adams’ first opera, Nixon in China, which a large number of US critics have been trying to place in the realm of masterpieces since its premiere.   Raineri provided the piano accompaniments – as usual, with splendid command over, and sympathy with, a wide-ranging program.   Further, for one particular piece the soprano/piano ensemble was joined by two cellists: Oliver Scott and Shuhei Lawson.

Wong and Raineri opted to start with the first of Poulenc’s Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon, the elliptically-titled C.   It made for a sombre opening gambit; despite its several shafts of illuminating imagery, the song indulges in no fanciful word-painting   Its vocal line moves simply with an early high note but the main impression is of grief at the loss of France to the German invader – yet again.   Kong’s treatment proved more confrontational than usual; maybe this was because of cramped studio conditions in which her dynamic sounded aggressive, or perhaps her view of the work has uncovered a vein of defiance, a sort of determined regret.   Whatever the case, C made a no-nonsense start for the soprano.

Another chanson followed with Debussy’s early Mallarmé setting, Apparition.   Here, Kong found a better place to exercise her talent for dramatic declamation, notably at the outbursts for a key signature change to G flat at C’était le jour béni and at the work’s climax on the repeat of apparue at bar 38.   Both performers interpolated a ritardando at the end of bar 8, possibly to celebrate the end of Debussy’s flirtation with B flat and A flat; Kong inserted a phrase-breaking breath or two – one I seem to recall breaking up ton premier baiser.   But the soprano’s accuracy in this work’s chromatic slips could not be faulted and the collaboration across the final page’s snow imagery was exceptionally restrained in its eloquence.

Kong then gave us the first of her three operatic arias with Obéissons quand leur voix appelle from Act 3 of Massenet’s Manon, although I believe she started well back with Est-ce vrai?, followed by Je marche sur tous les chemins.    All of this was possibly included to give us a slab of solo work before the main aria, which actually involves the chorus; Raineri’s piano substituted for the opera’s jeunes gens who comment so supportively on the heroine’s call to hedonistic arms.   Here was a more comfortable piece for Kong who infused its pages with plenty of twinkling personality for a scene fragment that ideally depicts Manon at this stage of her career.    And, when the gavotte proper began, the soprano showed herself very convincing in dealing with the direct nature of her line, even if things didn’t seem to gel in the last two bars; hard to tell what went amiss, but the effect was of uncertainty.

Kong then introduced us to some Korean songs: Youngsub Choi’s Memory and a setting of Psalm 23 by Woon Young Na.  In the first of these, the compositional language was Romantic with a Rachmaninovian turn, notable only for a repeated piano figure.  Was this originally a folk-song?    The text is by an unknown author but reads like an extended haiku.   Whatever the case, Choi’s required vocal range is demanding, as are some interpolated ornamental notes.    The prevailing mood was melancholy, mainly because the pace was slow and the minor scale/mode dominated. 

Kong told us in a prefatory address that the Church had affected Korean music, an observation well borne out by the psalm setting which proved to be slightly less lush than the previous song and more suggestive of Celtic tunes; in fact, it could have been one of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser’s Hebridean settings.  This piece was delivered with great zeal and determination, rising to a powerful high point (‘the valley of the shadow of death’ or ‘cup is overflowing’ ?); by contrast, the piano accompaniment was notable for a harmonically static bass across much of the work’s progress.

In came the two cellos to help with the aria from the Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5 in a Raineri arrangement which at the start had the two strings playing lines 3 and 4 of the original 8-part instrumentation.   In these operating conditions, Kong took the dominant role and never let go.    During Ruth V Corrêa’s poem in the middle of the vocalises, the cellos switched to the original’s top lines while the soprano gave an ardent account of the text, taking her time at each of the pause markings.   Raineri assumed the cello lines 5 and 6 from bar 51, as well as sustaining the piece’s two bass lines, as he had throughout.  It all made sense, even if you missed the mild texture of the original scoring in the central pages and the onward-pushing pizzicati of the outer segments.  The piece could also have gained from longer sustained A and C minims at the last chord.

Well-positioned after the Villa-Lobos, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise brought the night back to an even keel.   Kong seemed unable to operate at a soft level in this work, something that is pretty vital for the first seven bars as well as the final eight.   But she found the appropriate taut plangency for the piece’s central pages from bars 18 to 30 where the emotional; level is heightened.   

Opera extract No. 3 turned out to be Roxane’s lullaby, Usnijcie krwawe, from Act 2 of Szymanowski’s King Roger, the only real chance in the opera where the king’s wife gets to say something at length; even then, she’s interrupted by Roger, Edrisi and the chorus.  Kong made an excellent display of control in the long melismatic vocalising at the aria’s start; once into the text, she produced a dramatically heightened reading of this extract, quite right when you consider the theatrical circumstances of its delivery.  Still, the output tended to the monochrome in expressiveness despite the emotional shift when the composer’s tonality definitely shifts from its modal minor to the major. 

Speaking of modes, Raineri took the opportunity for a solo before Kong’s big finale which had relevance to what came before it and what came after.    John Adams’ short China Gates uses modes as its fundamental material and is a fairly fluid sample of what used to be called minimalism before concerned composers got distressed by such a dismissive catch-all descriptor.   The pianist demonstrated a persuasive fluency in his outlining, although the changes between sections sounded more overt than usual.   Does this music still test the patience?   Probably not when it’s small-scale like China Gates.   Yet it reminded me of witnessing Philip Glass play his own piano music at some past Melbourne International Arts Festival where the American composer was feted – lots of sustaining pedal swathes across a lyrical motif or six that intertwined to produce a lyrical cloud, with the invitation to luxuriate in the textures and let your faculties drowse.

To end, Kong sang the coloratura aria from the end to Act Two of Adams’ opera  –  I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung  –  thereby ending on a powerful note and giving us a small sample of her mastery of this role which she sang for Victorian Opera six years ago (I didn’t see it) and also gave Sydney this aria in 2017 for Opera Australia’s The Nixon Tapes concert of excerpts.   It’s a belt from start to finish, one-dimensional in character if probably making sense in context.   You had to be impressed by Kong’s emphatic delivery that sizzled with vocal power and enough spite to bring to mind the reported ferocity of the Dowager Empress Cixi as well as the raging contempt for anything outside herself that Mao’s wife showed during the Gang of Four trial in 1980. 

Raineri gave Kong all the repetitive major key support she needed and handled the long postlude with unfaltering energy. 

This aria is a highlight in Adams’ opera which has enjoyed several performances world-wide since its 1987 premiere.   But it’s a superficial product; in my mind, little more than a blip in operatic history and inferior in most ways to King Roger.   You’d have to be a determined patriot to class the work among the great operas.   But then, as someone who lived through the period, it’s outside the bounds of my understanding to find sympathy with a work that attempts to gain sympathy for Mao and Nixon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liszt without hysterics

LISZT’S ITALIAN PILGRIMAGE

Tristan Lee

Move Records MCD 593

It only seems like last week that I heard this young Melbourne pianist working his way through Liszt’s Deux légendes.   In fact, it was almost the end of March and Lee was appearing as the second recital-giver in that excellent and timely innovation, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, during which he gave us his reading of those picturesque sacred tales with lashings of sonorous fabric.  Not much has changed, it would seem, since this CD’s release last year but the performance is masterful, carrying you past a good deal of heaven-storming piety and grandiose musical vistas.

The first of these, St. François d’Assisse: La prédication aux oiseaux, enjoys a reading that is exemplary in its detail, most obviously when the birds are involved before and after the saint starts his avian address.   Lee keeps his texture clear despite observing pretty much all the ‘accepted’ pedal markings; even when the grouping gets a touch cluttered, as in bars 42 to 45 where the twitterings reach their peak, the pianist keeps the demi-semiquaver patterns lucid..

Further, once the saint starts preaching in earnest and the birds settle into a state of quiescence from bar 68 onwards where the chords gain in majesty, the interpretation gave an earnest, urgent outline of the music’s intended move towards the preacher’s plunge into ecstasy and the high-flown climactic fortissimo points in A flat and B flat.  The composer’s moving transition from the end of Francis’ address back to the birds’ return to their natural state (changed, one hopes, by the experience) also brought about a sense of completion;  you may not believe in the event but the musical depiction gives a remarkable depiction of this legend, all the better here for Lee’s responsive performance.

More excitement prevails in the second legend, St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots.   The piece is a near monomaniacal treatment of the opening three-octave theme on which the composer whips up a stormy Strait of Messina crossing that reaches its apotheosis at bar 103.   Again, Lee keeps his textures free from over-blurring, especially in the most active passage which is not so much thematic as fiercely aquatic – bars 72 to 98 – with chains of alternating chords, double-octaves and runs of chromatic thirds.  The pace is not startlingly fast with attention-grabbing acrobatic leaps to summon up the blood, but the accelerandi and stringendi come across as moderate, serving to underpin the miracle being depicted.   Even at the end, where Liszt opts for an affirmative-action ending rather than leaving the saint to enter Sicily in an atmosphere of pious and reserved thanksgiving as you might have anticipated from the Lento at bar 138/9, Lee keeps the triumph leashed.

These two pieces come at the end of the CD; not positioned as reassurances of Lee’s talents but well-tailored to amply display his gifts, not least one for investing both works with gravitas, the realization that we are listening to music that can stand on its own feet when treated with dedication.   This pianist is conscientious in his approach which gains a great deal from technical security but just as much from a level-headed view of Liszt’s picture-painting.

This CD’s main content is the middle volume of the Années de pèlerinage – the one specified as having Italy as its inspiration.   Liszt compressed his experiences into seven pieces: three to do with painting/sculpture/music, four referring to literature.  The suite presents as a mixed bag where the titular references can be helpful but – as with so many cross-discipline works – could also prove distracting.   You take on trust that Liszt found inspiration in his selections from art and letters; you’d be wasting your time, I suggest, if you went looking for more meaningfulness beyond a few broad strokes.

It’s easier to keep away from useless inferences in the painting/sculpture/music pieces.  For instance, Sposalizio, inspired by Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin, presents an insoluble problem: what’s the connection?   It existed in the composer’s aesthetic reaction to the picture but you’re hard pressed to see how.  Lee performs it with plenty of space, in no rush to make a temporally efficient attack on the right-hand quaver pattern that starts in bar 9; but his rubato is delicately applied,   Only a few top notes get subsumed in the Più lento chorale but the double octaves leading to the piece’s high point combine care and bravado in excellent balance.

You can’t make much of Liszt’s Il penseroso either, except to presume that the composer thought the statue from Lorenzo de Medici’s tomb was given to sombre ruminations; well, so you would, wouldn’t you, given the surroundings?   Even major chords in these two pages have a dour flavour but Lee performs the piece without surprises, giving full vent to its grim character and ceding no ground in the central bars 23-31 stretch where the chain of chords acquires a subterranean mobile bass.

Most music-lovers who know the Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa are aware that the actual tune was written by Bononcini whose life-span overlapped with Rosa’s by 3 years only. It’s a great march tune and quite a test to sing.  Lee finds the right amount of bounce and is musician enough to exercise discretion with regard to phrasing, notably in the Sempre l’istesso setting at the piece’s middle.

With the three Petrarch sonnets  –  Nos. 47, 104, 123  –  the listener is on familiar textual ground, assisted greatly by the fact that these were originally songs.   In fact, you can go back to the composer’s first essays of 1846 and trace fairly easily the various alterations and interpolations of the 1858 piano solo version.   in Lee’s hands, these pieces are highly effective, thanks to the performer’s keen eye for the fundamental melody lines and a reliable security in handling the inserted cadenzas and masking ornamentation.  Indeed, the more you hear these parts of the Années, the more delights you find, like the touching expressiveness of the first vocal strophe’s restatement in G Major starting at bar 37.  Lee’s handling of the syncopated vocal line throughout remains completely fluent and eloquent in its phrasing – a laudable realization of the fervent blessings that both poet and composer celebrate.

With Sonnet No. 104, we’re definitely in the land of the Liebesträume with a commanding lyrical vocal line, quiescent arpeggios and rich, mutable chord sequences.   It’s not easy to see how Liszt is reflecting Petrarch’s myriad oscillations – one per line (except for the last) in a welter of conceits.   Here is one place where the melody is not illustrating any leaps of imagery; it’s just one long, luxuriant line with several cadenza interruptions that Lee is inclined to treat without fireworks.

Not the least inspired of the three, Sonnet No. 123 is where Lee takes most liberties, most obviously with a stringendo starting at bar 56 which decelerates too early.   As well, at various points the pianist likes to linger – extending a note’s value or allowing a good deal of space before resuming after a caesura, or taking an a piacere across the last four bars very literally.    But you find just as many subtleties in this Chopin-indebted work; listen to the mild susurrus of left hand triplets that start at bar 22, or the impeccable catch-and-release of the change from E Major to C Major at bars 40-41.

In all sonnets, you hear a further testament to Lee’s insight with regard to this music and his responsiveness to their Romantic vocabulary.   These soulful gems are followed by the CD’s longest track: Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata.  To his credit, Lee gets nearly all the notes; no mean feat in this virtuosic exercise where the excitement is built up in several short-lived paragraphs as Liszt contemplates (possibly) the various descriptors of torment and vice in Hugo’s poem.  This work is probably the most technically demanding that Lee attempts here; furthermore, its length makes it difficult to mould into a narrative – even more so than the second of the légendes.

For instance, I can’t find anything else on the disc to compare with the long Presto agitato assai that stretches for about 110 bars of barely punctuated action.   Lee exercises his flexibility here with some split-second delays as he moves between registers, but it’s never enough to upset the onward surge of the paragraph.  There’s a counterbalance to this in the shift to F sharp Major at bar 157 for a più tosto ritenuto reminiscence of Beatrice where the writing is like a cross between a Chopin nocturne and an étude.   In this 23 bar episode, Lee shows a remarkably even-tempered responsiveness that gives us more than a mossy Romantic texture; rather, a subtle interplay of accents, both rhythmic and melodic, and a fine realization of Liszt’s vision of an in medias res Paradise emerging in the context of an Inferno that sounds – like Milton’s Satan – suspiciously heroic.

An all-Liszt CD from a (resident) Australian pianist is to be celebrated, of course, but not just because of the implied ambition.  This is a remarkable accomplishment for its unalloyed probity; listening to Lee’s insightful readings has been one of the more memorable passages of play that I’ve enjoyed in some years of Liszt experiences.  Here is a recording that stands secure on its own merits.  If it’s not flashy enough or Cziffra-like for some, that’s too bad: Lee is his own man and his interpretations reveal a highly welcome integrity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The night of the arranger

LA VIE EN ROSE

Tania Frazer, Jonathan Henderson, Alan Smith, Alex Raineri,

Brisbane Music Festival

Saturday August 1

                                                                      Tania Frazer

Alan Smith

                                                                         Alan Smith

Latest in this online series that is lighting up the synapses of music-loving Brisbane, Saturday’s all-French concert employed the services of the city’s Southern Cross Soloists; well, four of them.   While you might have expected from the title an hour-long reminiscence of Trenet, Aznavour and Piaf, what came out was both enriching and puzzling but, in synchronicity with what I have learned about the Soloists, the program was packed with arrangements – some of them comfortable for all concerned, others not so happy.    At the heart of it all sat Alex Raineri’s piano accompaniment; in an act of self-abnegation, the Festival’s artistic director performed only one sols, which is extraordinary when you consider that the offerings included works by Satie, Ravel and Debussy.

In fact, the most orthodox, ‘straight’ work kicked off the evening.   Henderson and Raineri worked through Francaix’s Divertimento of 1953; not a piece to keep you engrossed but an alternately tuneful and busy compendium.   Its initial Toccatina, a non-stop barrage of notes for both players, proved as full of surface excitement as many another showcase written especially for Rampal; a frippery, but soon over.   The following Notturno proved attractively mobile; no longueurs here.   Another vital effusion in the Perpetuum mobile which lived up to its title but annoyed at the opening because you could not tell whether the rhythm was intentionally irregular or whether the players were uneasy with its metrical lay-out.   Fitted with a galaxy of chromatic runs, these pages gave Richardson a real workout in terms of breathing.

I found Francaix’s Romanza the most attractive of the suite’s five movements with its deft combination of sentimentality and spice.   You couldn’t call the latter aggressively dissonant but the composer beguiled you with several unexpected turns of line and harmonic structure.   These pages showed Francaix at his best in a lyric of no little charm, executed without excess in any department; the unfeeling could dismiss it as film music but the final bars showed how Francaix could transcend the trite.   As for the Finale, it impressed for a dash of piquancy but sounded like a trial for the performers who fortunately found a less dogged approach as the piece neared its end – or perhaps the work gained in inspiration.   Whatever the case, you were more aware in the later pages of a sense of humour in the stop/start alternations and a slick final bar.

For a lot of us, there was a time when we found Satie to be as he presented – droll, eccentric, heart-of-gold.   But the charm wore off somewhere in the 1980s for me; now the performance directions along the lines of ‘ Take a nap, then construct a lovers’ nest from papier-mâché and osprey dung’ seem aimless, although such high-jinks gave rise (eventually) to a school of composition where the score was all prose; and who was that Frenchman discovered for us by Keith Humble and Jean-Charles François who wrote  pithy enigmatic texts as his scores?   Not to mention Stockhausen in the later Messianic years.   Even so, we are still brought up short by the pared-back calm of creations like the Gymnopédies in both piano and Debussy-scored (1 and 3 only) formats.

No less so by Satie’s Gnossiennes, which may have something to do with gnosticism or, more materially, with Knossos; I’ve had nothing to do with the creed but have wandered around the Cretan ruins and Satie’s miniatures could possibly have some connecrtion with Sir Arthur Evans’ excavated site – exactly what, I don’t know except for a shared angularity.   Whatever the background, this performance of Gnossiennes 1, 4 and 3 saw Frazer offer her own transcriptions for oboe and piano, the outer ones of this trio very well known.   Frazer took the right-hand melody line and left to Raineri the chordal background.

It took a while to get used to the penetrating double-reed timbre but Frazer generated an expressive line in No. 1, although I wondered about some of the too-simple dynamic shifts during repeats, like the move to piano in the second half of the Très luisant segment; and the upward octave shift on the final F sounded unnecessary.   The encounter with No. 4 impressed in its middle strophes, after the semiquaver quibbling.   And I couldn’t understand the acceleration during No. 3 unless Frazer and Raineri were putting an individual slant on the composer’s direction to play De manière à obtenir un creux.   If anything, the reading of this Gnossienne seemed to me rather over-played, imposing a personality where the original intention was to remove it.

Smith gave a sensible reading of Ravel’s Tzigane with fine Raineri accompaniment across the whole tension-packed canvas.   The violinist would probably not have been too happy with his A dotted crotchets in bars 9 and 10 but this whole opening section on the G string only is a taxing passage, especially as it sets a high intonational standard right from the first notes.   Smith’s rendering proved powerful enough, although the double-stops at Rehearsal Number 3 emphasized the lower line.   Coming up all too soon, a diabolical alternation of harmonics and left-hand pizzicato follows before the exposed violin gets some relief (not that it ever gets much of a pause).

The violinist powered through the testing pages with admirable zest, winding up with an excellent grounding deliberation at Number 17, building to a fine clamour at Number 32 with the concluding rush from accelerando to presto impressing for its accuracy under high pressure as the piece smashes into a compelling quadruple-stopped last two bars. Tzigane is one of music literature’s great exercises in deconstruction, Ravel taking all-too-familiar Ziegeuner tropes and pushing the trite into virtuosic exercises with no concern for soppy sentimentality or faux-masculine flashiness.   It’s a delight to hear when the violinist is able to handle its trials and Smith did Ravel – and himself – proud.

From here on, the program moved into Beecham-lollipop mode with a bracket of three songs and a one-time compulsory encore for violinists.   Raineri began this group with his own solo piano arrangement of Louiguy’s La vie en rose.   It followed the song’s chorus faithfully enough, the whole piece containing only a few harmonic solecisms and, for most of its length, having a concentration on the lower half of the piano’s compass.  Taking the familiar tune up an octave was effective, not least because it made for a relief from the low-pitched preceding pages.   I’m not a fan of the ripple/arpeggio ending but at least it wasn’t overdone here.   No, it wasn’t as ambitious an undertaking as Grainger’s reshaping of The Man I Love but it did little harm to this era-representing evergreen.

Henderson partnered Raineri in a no-surprises version of Debussy’s pre-1891 Beau soir chanson.   The flautist took on the vocal part with a generously phrased volubility and giving us a well-prepared climax across bars 25 and 26.    The same composer’s 1880 Nuit d’étoiles brought Frazer to the melody line.   Here also, the lyric came across with ease and restraint.   I think that the piano part diverged from the original in the last refrain, making the octavo jump eight bars early – or perhaps I was happy to get the main theme back pianissimo.   Last in this group was the Méditation from Act Two of Massenet’s opera Thaïs, with which neglected work Sir Andrew Davis made Melbourne music-lovers familiar three years ago.    Smith had no trouble dispatching this sweetest of intermezzi with a fine deftness in handling the gruppetti of five and four semiquavers that punctuate the smooth violin line’s progress in the piece’s outer sections.   Possibly the sforzandi at the più mosso agitato direction from bar 34 on could have been pulled back to a less full-on dynamic level but it was difficult to find fault with the rest of the score, Raineri having little to do beyond outlining the harp’s almost non-stop accompanying role.

To finish off the night with some fireworks, Raineri and Co. put on a more taxing encore piece, a work that occupies a dodgy zone between definite program material and something frivolous with which to delight any audience: Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.   But, rather than employing Smith’s expertise, the work was given in an arrangement by Frazer where flute and oboe share the solo violin line between them. Frazer took the opening solo up to bar 6; Henderson took over from bar 7 to bar 10; and on it went in a heart-warming demonstration of how to play musical fair-shares.   A little bit of transposition was needed to cope with the fioriture nine bars before the rondo’s start.  Nevertheless, once the main constituent of this work was in progress, Frazer maintained her even distribution of the work-load with some clever interweaving and a subtle preparation for the trill hiatus just before Letter B.

Notably appealing was the attack by both woodwind artists on the double-stops during the con morbidezza interlude.   A crunch-of-sorts came with the triple-stop cadenza five bars before Letter G which turned somehow into spaced-out arpeggios; but that’s pretty much what the original is.   Then on to a hurtling coda and home.  You’d have to call it an interesting exercise but I have to confess to a longing for the original where you get to enjoy a violinist’s handling of the composer’s hurdles, contrived especially to test that instrumentalist’s virtuosity and self-control.

Not a night for the purist, then.   Still,  Raineri had organised a well-assorted program, contrasting the tried-and-true with some arcana, peppered with three very popular works.   All of it gave a platform for four sadly under-used musicians.   But we live in hope that Aunt Annastacia will keep us free from extra-state contamination and that these artists will soon get back to playing for live audiences who are actually in the room with them.   Until then, we will have to put up manfully and womanfully   –  and appreciatively  –  with the inbuilt fluctuations in content of entertainments like La vie en rose.

 

 

China? No: platinum

THE GARDEN PARTY

The Marais Project

Move Records MCD 592

The garden party 14.cdr

Talk of accordions, and they spring up all over the place.   No, perhaps not all over but, as the Fates would have it, James Crabb appeared in last week’s bonus recital from Musica Viva; straight after, this Marais Project CD came up for attention and it features piano accordionist Emily-Rose Šárkova as both performer and arranger, appearing in seven of the 19 tracks.   Of course, the instrument is up against it for a lack of original material in the serious music field  –  sorry: established original material  –  but one way to get around this is to insert your contribution into a biddable ensemble and see what comes out.

Here, Šárkova has been invited by the Project founder Jenny Eriksson to enter the wide-ranging ensemble and imbue the company sound with her own.   We start out with Eriksson’s own take on the Feste Champêtre from Marais’ big Suite d’un goût Étranger, included in the composer’s Livre IV for viol and continuo.   I’ve spent a while listening to a few versions of the original, following the viol throughout, this research illuminated through a brilliant execution of the piece by Jordi Savall.   There seems to be little thematic cross-referencing between Marais’ earthy rondo and Eriksson’s The Garden Party;  not that you can read too much into that.   As well as the accordion’s penetrating timbre, you have Eriksson herself on gamba, Project regular Tommie Andersson’s baroque guitar, and the all-important violin of Susie Bishop.

Like Marais’ Feste, the Party is initially in a 4/4 rhythm with a long detour into triple time.   You hear a recurring root passage in both pieces that demarcates the variants/episodes in the earlier work and acts as a framing device in Eriksson’s reappraisal.   And while the 18th century piece’s various sub-divisions feature an appropriate musette and a tambourin, the title track doesn’t take too long before venturing close to the world of klezmer.   Later, a few jazz-inflected passages imitate Stephane Grappelli too close for comfort  .  .  .  or perhaps the aim was to summon up the French-Italian violinist’s spirit on purpose.   One of the modern variants features the gamba and accordion (single-line) in collaboration; another has violin and gamba; later gamba and guitar, before Bishop invokes the Grappelli spirit and we re-enter the klezmer mode.

Still, it’s a party and you’d be insane if you went looking for a thematic consistency at one of those events these days.   More to the point, Eriksson’s celebration is crisp and determined in every bar, complete with bracing accordion chords to interpolate some well-placed full-stops.

Next comes another arrangement by Šárkova of four pieces from the E minor Suite from the 1717 Livre IV by Marais.   We hear the Rondeau Paÿsan, jump back to the Sarabande, then hear the two characteristic pieces that end the suite: La Matelotte and La Biscayenne.   By this stage, you’re hearing (or imagine you are hearing) repetition of material between pieces – or perhaps you think it’s so because of the multiple repeats.   In any case, the arrangement is for gamba and accordion and it works pretty well because Šárkova is a deft hand at picking out melody lines to meld into and contrast with Eriksson’s part.  This is particularly effective in the Sarabande where the contrast in sonority between both instruments is nowhere near as clear-cut as you’d expect.

An O salutaris hostia by Pierre Bouteiller (no, me neither) uses Danny Yeadon’s gamba as well as Eriksson’s,  Andersson’s theorbo, while the text is sung by soprano Belinda Montgomery.   This is, for my money, the finest product on the CD but it’s a re-issue from the group’s previous recording from 2009,  Love Reconciled.   The vocal work is refreshingly clear with just enough ornamentation, while the supporting lines make a splendid and mellow mesh.   Such a pity the composer didn’t extend to Aquinas’ second verse with its terse and moving last couplet.

The Suite No. 2 in G minor of 1692 by Marais here uses Melissa Farrow on baroque flute, partnered with Fiona Ziegler’s baroque violin, while Eriksson and Andersson make a firm continuo duo.   Once you get used to the convention of treating six regular quavers as changeable into dotted quavers+semiquavers when the mood takes you (yes, that’s just being flippant about a well-established Baroque convention), it’s a pleasure to hear the upper lines move in polished synchronicity.   This is another recycling, from the Project’s 2015 Smörgåsbord album, giving us four out of the 13 pieces in the suite itself: Prelude, Rondeau, Plainte and petite Passacaille.    All are cleanly accomplished, although I missed the repeat of the Rondeau‘s second part, but delighted in the slow processional of the Plainte, and listened over and over to bars 67 to 65 of the petite Passacaille for the brisk inter-cutting between flute and violin.

Performing J’avois crû qu’en vous aimant, an anonymous petit air tendre, all participants get to run through the theme – Andersson on theorbo to start, then Bishop singing two of the three verses and playing one, Eriksson giving an elegant shape to her outline.   All of this is convincing as a mobile plaint, bu I was sorry to have to forego the final section that moves into triple time and breaks the mood, like the third Agnus Dei in so many of those Classical period masses.    Still, the MP isn’t alone in that as all other groups I’ve heard attempting this piece also avoid any bucolic suggestions.

Another recycled group (from the group’s Love Reconciled CD of 2009) follows with a selection from Marais’ Livre V of Pieces de violes, Eriksson taking prime position, supported by Andersson on theorbo, Catherine Upex supplying a gamba support, and Chris Berensen the most discreet of harpsichordists.   The quartet begins operations with an unexpected preface in the Rondeau louré from Livre III, which accretes instruments as it passes by.  then the Allemande la Marianne,  a sarabande where the theorbo and second gamba sound very forward, a menuet in which the melody line barely survives the accompanying chords’ ferocity, and La Georgienne dite la Maupertuy which brings an appealing brusqueness of articulation to the fore at each repetition of the main theme.

Last of the previously-issued numbers is Andersson’s arrangement of the Swedish tune Om sommaren sköna which comes from the previously-mentioned Smörgåsbord CD.   The executants are tenor Pascal Herrington, Farrow, Ziegler, Eriksson and, of course, Andersson.   Nothing new here, again: Andersson leads the way with a solo theorbo rendition of the tune, followed by Eriksson doing the same.  Then Herrington sings the rather doleful C minor tune’s first verse before Ziegler has her way with it, supported quietly by Farrow before the tenor comes back with verse three, Farrow very subtly shadowing him.   Sorry to miss out on the middle Där hörs en förnöjelig stanza, particularly because the melody suits Herrington’s clean-edged voice.   But then, while wishing the best to all concerned, there’s not much you can do with a tune like this except play it over and over – unless you’re prepared to take it out on a limb and provide some real variation.

The Project winds up with two jeux d’esprit that bring Šárkova back into the fold.    First is her arrangement of La Anunciación by Ariel Ramirez, sung by Bishop with the piano accordion dominating the perky accompaniment to the Argentinian composer’s Christmas song; Eriksson and Andersson are assisted by double bass Elsen Price and Šárkova takes on a short singing role.   It’s very upbeat and happy – and short, because the performers only deliver half of the Félix Luna verses.   To finish, we have De fiesta en fiesta, a catchy chacarera (or is it?) by Peteco Carabajal where yet again the performers dig deep to find their inborn Argentinian.   The personnel is the same as for La Anunciación and, as has latterly become prevailing practice, the theme gets shared around between the singer and violin with lots of interstitial commentary from the accordion; even the gamba pokes its head above the battlements for a short while and Šárkova joins Bishop for the last quatrain although, as in the previous number, only half the verses get a run-through.

The South American brace brings this celebratory CD to a rousing conclusion as the Marais Project rings up 20 years of operations with some new material and a recycling of their favourites or works that have found favour with MP supporters.  Even if you’re so-so about the outer tracks in this album, you get to re-experience these players at their best in previous releases.   And, when they’re good, they’re very, very good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Working hard to make a program

James Crabb and Julian Smiles

Bendooley Estate, Berrima

Monday July 20

James Crabb

                                                                      James Crabb

                                                                     Julian Smiles

For its bonus recital in the middle of a year that can politely be called ‘unsettled’, Musica Viva hit on a duet combination that you would be charitable to view as made in Heaven.  In fact, matching a cello with an accordion, no matter how classical, is a dangerous affair because the string instrument doesn’t have commensurate carrying power and, although it can quadruple stop, the cello also doesn’t have the ability to hit note clusters.  Put them together and you’re asking a good deal from the accordionist in terms of dynamic subtlety.

My only previous experience with James Crabb has been through his excursions with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, with which body the Scottish musician has been a welcome guest, particularly in those years when Richard Tognetti and (some of) his ACO colleagues were engaged with the music of Astor Piazzolla, that Argentinian-born fecund source of encore material.   In fact, the relationship between Crabb and the Sydney players goes back to at least 2003 when the accordionist and pianist Benjamin Martin appeared as guest soloists on the CD Song of the Angel with members of the ACO.   If you like your tangos feisty to the point of violence, here you go.

Smiles is a more familiar figure in Australian concert and recital halls.   One of the originals in the Goldner String Quartet (what’s the point of writing that?  They’re all originals, staying together as a group since its establishment in 1995), he has also been heard as a guest in Kathryn Selby’s recital series, Selby & Friends, and for some years as principal cellist with the ACO.    Also to the point, he has enjoyed a long association with Musica Viva, as an educator as well as a Goldner.

On Monday evening, the duet played in a lavishly wooden space at the winery, looking to me like a sort of warm version of the Riddling Hall at the Yarra Valley’s Domaine Chandon where Musica Viva presented a brilliant series of mini-festivals for some years.  In democratic spirit, both artists took it in turns to address their audience, which process was remarkably free from the awkwardnesses and staginess of most procedures of this kind.   Unlike the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall practice, this recital had no program: you found out what you were going to hear just before the players set to work.   So Elena Kats-Chernin’s Slicked back Tango came on before you knew it was in the offing.

Luckily enough, this dance was based on an arrangement for cello and piano by the composer, one of eight versions she has put out; no wonder her works’ catalogue is so vast.   This wide-awake writer is familiar with all the tropes of the South American dance, giving the cello pretty much all the melody material with the accordion taking on the chordal/rhythmic responsibilities, Crabb considerate in letting his partner take up prominence.   It’s brief and lively, a pick-me-up like we had in the mid-20th century when the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra used to whiz through Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture to open otherwise stolid concerts.

This short work was followed by a well-known cello solo: Bloch’s Prayer – first piece in the triptych From Jewish Life.   Once again, Crabb did piano duty although you missed quite a few bass notes; one moment they were there, then omitted in the next passage.  Smiles kept the right side of schmaltzy, except in the Più vivo of the last 7½ bars which was overdrawn, as was the over-loud accordion chord in the 4th-last bar.   But neither player treated the work as a chain of glottal stops, avoiding surges of loud and abrupt drops to soft, or imposing extended time for the melismata interruption near the end or for the chains of shared triplets.

At the heart of this recital came C. P. E. Bach’s Viola da Gamba Sonata in G minor H. 510, the most successful of the night’s collaborations in terms of sound colours.  Crabb impressed right from the beginning of the Allegro moderato, taking on his two cembalo lines with brisk vigour and giving each one equal weighting, especially welcome in his negotiation of Bach’s infectious ‘walking’ left-hand bass.   Both players performed with a mutually shared suppleness of rhythm without disturbing the work’s underpinning pulse.   Of course, they had top-notch material to work with; not just that safe-as-houses bass but also a wealth of melody intertwined with a fluency that delights at every turn.

In the C minor Larghetto, you had time to take in the work’s detail more easily, as in the delineation of all the original’s ornamentation.   While the players interwove their melodic work, you had even more leisure in which to appreciate Bach’s fertility, ideas thrown off with as much insouciance as in a mature Mozart piano concerto.   Smiles gave us a pointed and carefully shaped reading, Crabb keeping his potential swamping power well under control, most notably in the melting 6ths across the final 8 bars of this semi-siciliano.

A different sort of pleasure came in the concluding Allegro assai where Bach pulls some subtle rhythmic tricks across its length.   Crabb did a sterling job of realising the figured bass chords during the movement’s first 11 bars before his treble entered to compete with the viol/cello.   My only disappointment came with the executants’ decision not to repeat the second half of this segment of the sonata.

Having heard Bloch’s Prayer earlier, now we were treated to the other side of the religious coin in Saint-Saens’ Prière Op. 158, a product of his last years originally for cello and organ.   You could not fault the grace of expression in the opening section but the change to E flat soon saw an influx of religiosity, notably when the cello started on its triplets in bar 38.   A little later, the cello’s two-quaver pattern treatment veered towards the sentimental and the piece’s climactic point at bars 69-70 entered into the composer’s theatrical over-kill with enthusiasm; not to mention the reminiscence of Samson at bars 91-94 which sounds cheap in this context.   However, the problem with this reading came from the accordion’s texture which couldn’t avoid sounding very reed-heavy; to be expected, given the nature of the instrument.

Last scene of all was the inevitable Piazzolla; we’d had balancing prayers, so why not balancing tangos?    This was Le Grand Tango of 1982, the one written for Rostropovich who was unaccountably slow to come to the party and play it.   It’s a long piece, well over 10 minutes, and here gave evidence of a marriage of vision even if you might have liked more vim from the cello.   Nevertheless, both parties were consistent in their observance of the many incidental passing notes throughout.    Here, the nuevo tango is writ large with plenty of individual segments contributing to the whole.   At its core, it strikes me as concert music, not the sort of thing you can easily dance to unless you’ve been pre-choreographed – which, for all I know, may be essential to this new style.   But Smiles and Crabb gave as sensibly aggressive an account of this score as you could want with firm agreement on their attack, speeds and dynamic variation.

You could quibble that a cello is not strong enough to carry the burden of Le Grand Tango; that you need a violin to realise the dance’s inbuilt eroticism; that giving a melody to any bass instrument is dangerous when you have a bandoneon/accordion on the loose.    But, as in the Bach gamba sonata, Crabb observed the decencies: letting rip when he had the running, but maintaining a backing role when Smiles took up the Hauptstimme.   For such an odd combination, one where the members had no original music for cello and accordion in their rucksack, these artists delivered a near-hour’s worth of exemplary duo-playing.

 

 

 

The way we were – not

LUZ MERIDIONAL: ANDRIÁN PERTOUT

Move Records MD 3435

Here’s another contribution to Australian music from pianist Michael Kieran Harvey who has directed his formidable talents and energy to a project by Melbourne composer Pertout.   These 24 studies have a noteworthy genesis and – to use a term that’s probably best avoided – realization.   Each of them is a homage – a homenaje, as Pertout terms it in his birth tongue – to a specific Australian composer; further, each piece is based on a quotation from a work that the composer researched and found (or should that be the other way around?) in the State Library of Victoria – the Australian Manuscripts section, to be precise.   Pertout takes the quotation (only one for each study?) and transforms it by means of a range of techniques, some of which are familiar even to non-initiates.

For me, the experience promised a sort of walk around my youth and those years spent in a state of critical adolescence.   I knew only one of the composers in person; a few of them I saw, either seldom or often; the great majority either died before I was aware of them or operated on levels unapproachable for a naive schoolboy/student.   Pertout, in the main, goes back to a period in Australia’s compositional activity which predates that sudden coming-of-age in the 1960s with the emergence of Sculthorpe, Meale, Dreyfus and Butterley.   Still, his choices of source-composers would be generally familiar enough to generations on either side of my own, even if experiences with shadowy corners of their output would have been confined all too often to the Lists of AMEB examinations.

This is, in fact, a double disc.   The first presents the 24 études, played with an all-embracing authority by Harvey.   The other is a DVD for downloading – a task that fell partly outside my abilities: I managed to play (and see) two of its three sections, the most valuable being a visual recording of Harvey playing seven of Pertout’s pieces, while another section was a short documentary about the creating of Luz meridional with some useful information from the composer.   The part I couldn’t raise would have been just as interesting: a lecture by Arjun von Caemerrer: Luz meridional: An Introduction and Concordance from 2013 which offered ‘notes on the composition and the composers via Carter and Cowell.’    Caemmerer is a Hobart poet who has collaborated with Harvey on several projects and it would have been fascinating to hear/see him speak because Henry Cowell and Elliott Carter stand as the basic pillars for these compositions –  their structure and language(s) in particular.

Without much detail, apart from the composer’s necessarily brief notes in the CD/DVD’s accompanying booklet, I found most of these compositions not exactly impenetrable, but cloudy.    Because of the vintage of most of Pertout’s basic material, you are all too easily tempted to go looking for potential shapes and contours in the older Australian compositions; well, the ones you can trace.    Had we but world enough, and time, we could follow Pertout’s footsteps through the State Library of Victoria and look at those 24 original works.   But that venerable building is off-limits for the foreseeable future, so anything I proffer as commentary on the 24 Études is bound to be more than usually subjective.   Even more importantly, what Pertout tells us about his practice tends towards the constructional, viz. his application of chords derived from Carter’s massive compendium, Harmony Book.   Such material is intriguing but leaves you in an intellectually beleaguered state because you don’t know what chords are involved.   I fear/hope that much of this might become clear if you gain access to Caemmerer’s lecture.

The suite opens with a salute to Roy Agnew, Niño dormiente, utilising one of his many piano miniatures: Sleeping Child from the Youthful Fancies of 1936.   The original is an amiable piece with a simple melody that enjoys transposition and mutation within an increasingly chromatic accompaniment to add some interest to its meanderings.  Pertout’s homage mirrors the original’s Impressionism-lite with a spot of pointillism before a return to haze; in its outer segments, the piece suggests drowsiness – all to the good – but, like so many of the material that follows, the tongue spoken is all Pertout.

Encuentro brings to the fore John Antill’s ballet Corroboree (1946) which made such a sensation on its first staged presentation in 1950, despite its reliance on percussion effects and disjunct rhythms, with a lack of other points of interest.   Pertout has chosen the first number, Welcome Ceremony, with its unsatisfying Aboriginal-imitating gestures and out-of-place main theme that is first brought up by the trumpet.   Pertout has created a brilliant-sounding detached note study that begins by concentrating Harvey’s attention in the piano’s top reaches, but the action spreads across the keyboard in a remarkable demonstration of what I can only typify as a snatch-and-grab exercise.   You can see the pianist at work on this and the preceding Agnew work on the DVD recording which chronicles parts of a performance from Melbourne’s Recital Centre on August 5, 2017.

Don Banks left Australia in 1950 and his Divertimento for flute and string trio dates from the following year when he was studying with Matyas Seiber.   What I can see of the two-movement score shows a sinewy, 12-tone-suggestive style at first with a hard-worked jaunty bite in the Rondo second movement.   Diversión presents a contrast between a short repeated bass note anchor and abrupt coruscations in the instrument’s higher register.   It’s a combination of the dour and the flashy.   I didn’t know Banks at all (he was more a Canberra-Sydney resident when he returned here in 1972) and the only score of his that I know well is the angular Three Episodes of 1964, but I think he would have delighted in this salute.

Sadly, Arthur Benjamin is another of this country’s one-hit wonders, thanks to the catchy Jamaican Rumba; not that he spent much time in Australia, finding more amenable homes in England and Canada – still, it’s all one commonwealth, isn’t it?    Pertout has searched out his 1947 Ballade for string orchestra to generate Balada: a one line toccata/moto perpetuo that suits Harvey down to the ground, even if there is one audible error in an unstoppable torrent of notes.  The insane thing is that you (I) can hear traces of that Rumba where there are really none to find.

Clive Douglas, a journeyman conductor for the ABC in the days when that body ran the nation’s orchestras, went in for Australiana, both indigenous and imported.   From the latter, Pertout chose Sturt, 1829, a piece that enjoyed a lot of airplay after its composition in 1952.    Somewhere along the line, I acquired a copy of the score but it disappeared somewhere between house moves.   In any case, this re-imagination, Poema sinfónico (which is how Douglas described this work – in English, of course) is the complete opposite to its predecessor.    It’s mainly isolated notes in the upper keyboard, articulated quite strongly with a few subterranean forays to about Middle C and, across what I can make of it, the whole thing seems to involve white keys only.   Mind you, Douglas’ lavish imagining of the explorer’s first expedition to find the inland sea is a solid example of Empire-building acclamation.

Mining the Satie cave, Peggy Glanville-Hicks wrote her 1953 Three Gymnopedies for oboe, celeste, harp and strings.    The second one, referred to here, does without the oboe.   I don’t know it and am not likely to have access to it but I take from Pertout’s title – Danza de guerra – that it’s active.    So is this new piece, with a sort of restrained aggression in Harvey’s attack.    Repeated single notes, motives in transposition, the whole finally fades to silence as the battle moves on.   This rendition is one of those that can be found on Harvey’s live DVD performance.

Eugene Goossens came from the generation before Glanville-Hicks and had a powerful influence on Sydney’s musical life in my youth.   His piano suite Kaleidoscope for piano is an early (1917) work, a collection of 12 short pieces from which Pertout has taken the second, Promenade.   In the original this is mainly in 5/4 and is simply walking music with an abundance of colourful stepping chords over a sustained D; in Caleidoscopio, a bass note has become the focus, not as a sustained presence but as a percussive centrality.  There is a transposition, a change of level, but the repeated note stays: a permanent fixture with flicks of sound around it  –  the embodiment of its title.

Is it disloyal to find Grainger’s Colonial Song pretty ordinary?   Not a favourite, obviously, but I’m fond of many other works in the composer’s catalogue and I enjoyed limited access to the Grainger Museum back in the 1960s, thanks to an enthusiastic curator.  Pertout’s Canción colonial opens with fierce tinkling at the top of the piano’s range and seems to settle into a two-part invention format with plenty of rhythmic juggling, so that the lines sound independent in every way that matters.   At this point, I can’t see any relevance to the extroverted original.

Raymond Hanson’s Trumpet Concerto was his most often-performed composition (well, the ABC played it regularly) and Pertout has chosen it for his Nostalgia salute.   A disjointed note-by-note progression in the treble is supported by soft arpeggiated chords in an angular lyric that seems to circle on itself; not actually finishing, but petering out.  Still, it sent me back to the brilliant John Robertson 1952 recording in search of connections.  Needless to say .  .  .   This piece features on the accompanying DVD.

Richard Divall, that bonhomme of Australian conducting and research into the country’s musical byways, conducted Fritz Hart’s The Bush symphonic suite in 2003 but you’d be hard pressed to find a copy of the ensuing CD; still, you can hear the interpretation on YouTube.   Pertout brought this 40 minutes-plus score out of storage for El bosque, a dynamic work with a repeated note pattern as a notable constituent; this Bush has a lively ambience which quality you can certainly in Divall’s interpretation of the composer’s solidly Romantic score.

Another name familiar from AMEB books, Marjorie Hesse wrote Melancholy for solo piano, probably about 1973.   Melancolía sounds like a staccato Webern Piano Variations although the language is, if anything, diatonic.   As well as performing a keyed role, Harvey also operates inside the instrument – a plucked note here, a few stopped knocks, a curt glissando to finish.   It all makes for a piquant impression; nothing dreary or depressing, and you can see Harvey at work on the DVD.

They didn’t come more retrospective than Alfred Hill, this country’s GOM of music.  He took on the white man’s burden and shouldered it for many years, producing solid works that enjoyed a good deal of attention but rarely for their ability to inspire.   Retrospectivo is inspired by one of Hill’s piano solos which owes a good deal to Grieg.   Once again, Harvey is mainly restricted to the piano’s upper reaches in another two-line piece that features repeating patterns in both hands.   It’s as though Pertout is having his own retrospective, looking back to the American minimalists but without the tricksy rhythmic shifts.   This is another of the études performed on the DVD.

Hill’s wife Mirrie was synonymous in my youth with the AMEB, for which body she wrote many piano miniatures.   One was Meditation, a 1954 piece that here transforms expectedly to Meditación.  This is brief, the second-shortest offering in the collection, and operates on three strata with another isolated note melody in the high treble, subterranean bass support and some supple chords at the centre of the piano.   It is unusual in that its title is remarkably appropriate in mood to what you hear.

Alongside the Hills, Dulcie Holland was a long liver and also one of the AMEB’s stalwart organizers and contributors.   Her 1963 Elegy for flute and piano, a gracefully looping construct that tests both instruments, provides the impetus for Elegia, another toccata here packed with a triplet moto perpetuo that is subject to two rhythmic displacements and resembles no other elegy I’ve ever heard because it excites rather than giving cause for rumination.

Some of us might recall the premiere of Synthesis by Robert Hughes around 1969; I’ve got very faint memories but the work failed to impress as much as the composer’s 1957 Sinfonietta which still strikes me as remarkably accomplished.   Pertout has, however, chosen the Scottish-born composer’s later score for treatment as Sintesis.  Here again, we are in the piano’s upper reaches where Harvey performs an exercise in limited materials, the same notes given oscillating treatment through flurries of loud and soft in close proximity.

As a student, I knew Keith Humble who took a postgraduate seminar at Melbourne University that I attended a few times before tiring of its unstructured nature.   His Eight Bagatelles for piano come from 1992, written three years before his death and the most ‘modern’ music in this enterprise.    Bagatela is the CD’s shortest track but one of its most active; Harvey gives an exhibition of brilliant pianism, blurting out notes from across the instrument’s compass with dazzlingly abrupt bursts of digital brilliance.

At the Sydney Conservatorium, I’d occasionally pass the benign figure of Frank Hutchens on the cramped stairs; I think the poor fellow once endured the horror of examining me in piano.   His At the Bathing Pool comes from 1932 and can only be called a dated delight: energetic, buoyant (as you’d hope), and G Major to its bootstraps.    En la piscina runs parallel to Hutchens’ initial semiquaver opening strophes with a similar burst of action that self-modifies before dying out – one of Pertout’s more frequent practices.   But the emotional impressions are emphatically opposed: the older work, sunny and sentimental; the study, neurasthenic and unsettling.

Along with Dulcie Holland, Marjorie Hesse and Mirrie Hill, Miriam Hyde was a major contributor to the AMEB organization; like her colleagues, she was a familiar name to generations of Australian musicians, although not all of them could have picked her out in a crowd.    Pertout chose her The Ring of New Bells, a piano solo from 1959, to bounce from and it is a perfectly acceptable four pages’ worth of tintinnabulation; you can find a portentous out-of-tune reading of it from Weymouth’s Duncan Honeybourne on YouTube.   The new El anillo de nuevas campanas has its own brand of ringing, although Pertout’s bells eschew the stateliness of Hyde’s money-raising peals for St. Paul’s Church in Burwood, Sydney.   The right hand follows a pattern of a falling 4th or 5th, followed by a leap to one of the piano’s top notes; all while the left hand follows its own round of changes.   The effect is mildly clangorous, not quite regular enough to be mesmeric, but showing Harvey at his athletic best.

As he nears the end of his cycle, Pertout uncovers some names that, even if you recognize them, the odds are you’ve heard precious little of their music.   Such a one is Horace Keats, who migrated here from Britain after World War I and became, among other activities, a song-writer of significance.   His Sea-wraith of 1939 has a simple ternary structure, an art song with a deftly-established emotional soundscape.   Fantasma del mar is brief and updates the chords that figure in Keats’ outer sections; here they are not striding past, but float.   The new look suggests haze and a more veiled menace than in the original lied.

Louis Lavater is another one of those semi-forgotten names, although he lived long and apparently prospered, his forte being bush ballads.   Pertout eschews the Paterson/Lawson element for an SATB Gloria setting of 1939 which yielded source material for this unexpected homage.   I can’t find any trace of this piece, not even in the Australian Music Centre’s archive, so have to take the new Gloria on its own terms.   It is the longest track on the CD and probably the most texturally dense with a wealth of Pertout tropes: penetrating  top notes of the instrument, ponderous bass humming, a continuous central stratum of activity, repetition of patterns and motives and chords.   In this instance, the dynamic range is sustained at a particular level for some time.  The first 5½ minutes impress as massive building blocks: this hymn of praise (if it is one, and not a vocal quartet celebrating a Hollywood actress) is not represented by chains of angelic singing but vaulting salutes that pile Pelion upon Ossa, until the eventual fade into eternity.

His setting of Sonnet 87, Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing, is the earliest  (possibly: 1954?) of four Shakespeare songs that Dorian Le Gallienne produced in his brief life.  Although I eventually fell into his job, I never met this most encouraging of Melbourne music critics, only sighting him from a distance at Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concerts during my undergraduate years.   His interpretation of the text is to treat it as an English art song, the sort of object that proved very popular for salon purposes throughout the first half of the 20th century, featuring a forward vocal line and unassuming chordal piano support.   Pertout calls his piece Despedida (Farewell) and it is more chameleonic than expected with a dependence on brief flurries, chopped notes and a sustained melodic chain in the centre while fireflies flicker above and below it.

Another crypto-Australian composer, London-born William Lovelock spent 25 years here;  initially as the first director of the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, then as a freelance pedagogue and music critic.   His Three Sketches for flute and piano – Aubade, Pastorale, and Valse Caprice – date from 1959 and Pertout has apparently chosen all three for his Tres bosquejos: the second-longest work on this recording.   Lovelock’s original music is impossible to trace, but the latter-day incarnation is another two-part work with a sort of four-note germ-motive dominating the forward movement.   These lines are in constant argument or competition, a repressed middle nocturne giving way to a vehement fantasia in which each register takes its turn in the limelight.  Three sketches, three segments.

Second-last of the études celebrates the perennially under-represented James Penberthy, singling out an organ piece, Hymn for the death of Jesus, from the composer’s broad catalogue.   The only knowledge I have of this 1972 work comes from Douglas Lawrence’s Reverberations recordings which emerged some time in the 1970s.   As with the Clive Douglas score of Sturt, 1829, these LPs have disappeared, possibly into my son-in-law’s gigantic vinyl archive.    I’ve no recollection of Penberthy’s Hymn, but Pertout’s Himno para la muerte de Jesús is one of the more memorable of the entire set.   You can see Harvey at work as this is the last of the filmed DVD performances.   He operates for much of the piece inside the piano and progress is by a series of spurts with plenty of silences and sustained sound-meshes.   I don’t like to be flippant but it’s reminiscent of Messiaen  –  without the birds, or the rhythms, or the modes of limited transposition.

To end, Pertout expends his final homage on Margaret Sutherland.   I only shared one experience with this formidable composer  –  in a South Yarra art gallery where a group, including Sutherland and Helen Gifford, assembled to hear a recording of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron.   Avoiding the obvious Sutherland familiarities like Haunted Hills or The Young Kabbarli, Pertout takes up the Six Profiles for piano from 1947: With animation, Expressively, Cool and detached, A little fussily, Quietly flowing, Rhythmically.   The writing is as angular as a good deal of the composer’s chamber music, cleverly argued and determined on dissonance.    Here, Seis perfiles starts like a cross between Bartok and bebop, moving the repetitive rhythmic passion up through the keyboard’s range.   Then follow a series of episodes – possibly five: if so, they curve into each other – which comprise patterns that contain ostinati or simply repeated chords  welding into a compelling virtuosic display that comes to a definite, fortissimo end.

This is an extraordinary composition.  To the nostalgic, it brings to mind the surprising number of worthwhile composers that operated in this country before the dawn of Las Alboradas, Laudes, From Within, Looking Out among others, and our abrupt accession to 20th century compositional semi-maturity in the 1960s.   Even if you cannot follow Pertout into his chord structures and mathematical decisions, the work shows an enviably fecund mind at work with a singular responsiveness to piano textures and sound-production techniques.   It helps immeasurably that the writer has Harvey as an interpreter, a musician who has entered into Pertout’s creation with his usual single-minded dedication, extraordinary comprehension of the task, and brilliant technical delivery.

I doubt that you will hear 24 Études in live performance very often (more’s the pity) but this exceptionally clear rendition (thank you once again, Move stalwarts Martin Wright and Vaughan McAlley) is a most valuable substitute.   This is a music that may fuse past and present but unarguably it shows itself to be a consistently inventive exploration of what music in our time could be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Small force gives enjoyment

CAVATINA

Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Friday July 10

                                                                   Rachael Beesley

I’ve heard this ensemble once before but in a more expanded form, I believe.   Friday’s proceedings gave us a Reader’s Digest ARCO with only a string sextet at work, performing a five-part program of composers whose life-spans intersected and who all fell into the special interest area of this organization.   But it was a tad unsettling because some of the program content could have gained from more string weight, particularly in the upper two lines, while the focal piece might have fared better if it had been left alone, unexpanded, in its original form.

The ARCO co-artistic director, Rachael Beesley, headed the performer list, supported by co-violinist Anna McMichael.   The group enjoyed the services of two violas – Katie Yap and Simon Oswell – while Natasha Kraemer’s cello was reinforced by double-bass Emma Sullivan.   As for the music, the night led off with Mozart’s F Major Divertimento K. 138 which was paired with Franz Xaver Richter’s Sinfonia a quattro in B flat Major – written some 30 years before the athletic Mozart and comparatively uninspired.   This evening’s title work referred to Movement V of Beethoven’s Op. 130 String Quartet, the one where he had to write a manageable alternative to the original concluding Große Fuge.   While you can tolerate dilations like the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s full-scale re-scorings for string orchestra of well-known quartets, this version with the added viola and double bass weight skewed your attention.

Moving definitely into the Romantic period, the group gave us Rossini’s Sonata No.1 in G Major which asks for a pair of violins, a cello and a double bass.  You usually hear it from a string orchestra without violas but here it worked functioned easily with four players.  The night ended in Mendelssohn’s early symphony No. 10 in B minor: one movement but with two viola lines, which at last sort of explained the necessity for both Yap and Oswell.

It’s always a delight to hear late Beethoven, especially the string quartets, but the Cavatina from No. 13 is puzzling in its own right.   Only 66 bars long and following a magnificently dense Andante and a clear-as-light tedesca, it presents as a semi-sophisticated ternary lied with a remarkable economy of material and expressiveness.  Taken by itself, it makes less an impression of spiritual hiatus than it does in its linear position during the complete work.   Still, even if it made a less-striking-than-intended appearance here, the players did it justice.

For one thing, they adopted performing practice from Beethoven’s era.   In her preliminary address, Beesley told us they were aiming for a period sound by utilising certain techniques, not to mention employing gut strings.   One of these devices was a liberal application of portamento which came into its own here; for example, in the first violin’s emerging out of sotto voce at bar 24 with a cadential theme, the downward and upward 5th leaps gained extra warmth by being given slight portamento.  The piece is top-heavy with luminous moments, one of the more prominent being McMichael’s surge to prominence six bars from the end with a critic-silencing pure delivery before the final consoling fade-to-benevolence.

At the program’s centre, the Cavatina stood out for various reasons, not least for its emotional depths in pretty light-hearted company.   More tellingly, it was the only piece of pure chamber music on offer, despite the additional instrumental weight; nearly everything else could have done with more players, like the Mozart frivolity.   Along with its companions, the D Major K. 136 and B flat K. 137, the short F Major score has become almost as popular as the later Serenade in G – certainly with performers.   You could find unexpected pleasures in this interpretation which removed a lot of the flashy sharp-edged quality that you get from plenty of modern ensembles.  Indeed, the tempi of the outer movements appeared to chug along, totally dissimilar to the crispness and bounce you expect from a body like the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra or its glittering big brother.   Yet what a delight to hear clearly the two lower lines which are always drowned out.

In the opening Allegro, I liked Beesley’s subtle unbalancing of symmetry in bars 44, 46, 48 and 50 which sat in easy complement with her chugging lower support.   But even more striking was the caressing approach from all concerned to the simple lyrical beauty of bars 81 to 86 – finely phrased and timbrally balanced.   You could find further agreable moments in the following Andante like the nice deviations from metrical regularity between bars 9 and 12, as well as in a mirroring point to this during the movement’s second half, although I was sorry to find that the group did not repeat this segment.  On to the concluding Presto and we were back in the jog-trot territory of the opening; nothing wrong with that – in this playing context – but you forfeit some of the swashbuckling bravado of passages like the last episode, not to mention the sparklingly busy main theme of this rondo which only really disappointed in a slushy passage near the last bars.

Richter’s sinfonia is set out, like the preceding Mozart, in quartet form and it also could have gained from more heft.    Its initial Spiritoso rushes up hill and down dale without showing much for the energy involved; not a memorable tune anywhere in the work’s fluent motion after the opening arpeggio pattern.   It seemed like good exercise work for the violins but your attention was only momentarily arrested by some suspensions.   The  Andante with muted upper strings wove a pleasant sextuplet/triplet web above a pizzicato bass line although in this work I wasn’t upset by the lack of a second-half repeat.   Richter’s Presto finale followed the opening movement’s lead in having no memorable melodic material to relieve its chains of scales and suspensions.  Admittedly a short burst of unexpected modulations in the second part pulled you up short for about 10 seconds and the whole score enjoyed an exemplary execution.  Yet, this was another divertissement; sadly, set alongside Mozart’s brilliant burst of adolescent inspiration, it paled into padding, particularly if you compared the two works’ finales.

Responsibilities seem more evenly divided between participating personnel in Rossini’s early sonata where – eventually – everyone gets a share of the limelight.  A product of the composer’s 12th year (the following Mendelssohn symphony was written when that composer was 14), this work has grown in popularity, although playing it as written in quartet form is rarely done, most organizations choosing to flesh it out with extra bodies to three of its lines.   You think for a while that the opening Moderato is going to be an uninterrupted gift for Violin 1 until you reach bar 45 where McMichael’s generous timbre enjoyed the chance to shine for 20 bars.   Here also, the players did not repeat the first half – disappointing because the performing accidents would have been useful to hear at length, given that this sonic ambience would have been more familiar to Rossini than the flamboyance of a group  like I Musici or I Solisti Veneti.   Kraemer worked with deliberation through her solo starting at bar 125, even if it turned out to be a shorter version of McMichael’s earlier exhibition spot.   By the end of this segment, you had a pretty fair awareness of this ensemble’s ability to oscillate between a biting attack in solo work and a more round-edged delivery in ensemble passages.

The plain Andante eventually springs to life at bar 19 where the first violin enjoys a skipping passage all-too-reminiscent of Dvorak’s Humoreske; not the Italian composer’s fault, of course – he came first – but it’s a welcome jeu d’esprit in a repetitious and predictable set of pages – see bars 32 to 47 – before Rossini revisits his first melody.  The Allegro that finishes this sometimes-remarkable piece of juvenilia includes another cello solo of 8 bars, preceded by a double-bass solo of the same length, both welcome break-outs for Kraemer and Sullivan who had no hesitation in pushing themselves to the front.  As an entity, the sonata sounded more relaxed and easy-flowing than in the hands of others determined to find a dormant Paganini in its amiable progress, all too often delivered with steel strings and lashings of Latin flair.  And it strikes me that the sonata gains considerably from more friendly treatment like the ARCO’s in both personality and warmth, however fuzzy.

Some idiot once told me that all of Mendelssohn’s early symphonies – 12 of them – have two viola lines.  Because I’m trusting and lazy, it’s taken a while but this performance helped to lay that myth to rest: only Symphonies 9, 10, 11 and the Sinfoniesatz have two sets of violas.   The ARCO sextet made a fine showing in the initial Adagio with an energizing clarity during the chromatic slide in bars 22 and 23.   But the whole effect was undermined by the lack of violin body strength in a score that, as it moved forward, showed that it wasn’t chamber music by making more deliberate, even cruder statements than in the smaller-framed format.

The tempo of the work’s main Allegro proved to be slightly variable in execution, close to off-balance towards the end of the development if recovering when not involved any further with working at exploring material.   But the playing reached its highest point of achievement in the brief piu presto, an invigorating 30-bar concluding burst with a bustling power across its active top four lines.   At only one movement long, calling it a ‘symphony’ is a bit of a stretch; even Webern managed two.   But Mendelssohn knew enough about juxtaposition and thematic eloquence to construct a convincing musical scenario.   Still, it was a pity that what we heard was necessarily limited in its power to involve.

It’s a welcome sight, watching even a small fragment of the ARCO performing; on the job in this dire time for artists across all fields.  The orchestra’s approach and products are far removed from most other ensembles who exercise their communal virtuosity without concern for what is of prime interest to musicians like these who dedicate their art to resurrecting original timbres and styles.   With these re-creators, you hear – even in constrained circumstances like those obtaining last Friday night – a strong semblance of what composers like Mozart and Beethoven might have expected to experience themselves, if probably more accurate in articulation, more refined in phrasing and dynamic balance.  Thanks to this sextet, we enjoyed a positive remembrance of things past – warm, slightly gruff, gemütlich.

 

 

 

 

 

Another worthy Friend

BEETHOVEN’S GHOST

Selby & Friends

City Recital Hall, Sydney

Saturday July 4

                                                                      Harry Ward

For the second of her season recitals in this frustrating year,  pianist Kathryn Selby works through an all-Beethoven program with violinist Harry Ward and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve; the latter a well-known musical entity in the Selby & Friends world, the former a newcomer to the organization’s ranks, it seems.   I’ve heard Valve in several trios with Selby but can recall them working together in only one of the two established repertory works from this occasion:  the Ghost Trio Op. 70 No. 1 in D Major.   The other, Op. 1 No. 3 in C minor, has been part of Selby’s repertoire for many years.   As for the other work on this program – Beethoven’s own arrangement for piano trio of his Symphony No. 2 – the musical textures proved unexpectedly familiar and I glean from the introductory comments during this telecast that Selby and Valve have played it in a previous season.   So I’ve probably heard it but any memories have faded – an all-too-familiar problem in these latter years.

Without any intention to downplay the contributions of pianist or cellist, I found a good deal of the interest in this recital sprang from finding how well Ward slotted into a pre-fabricated comfort zone.   It’s true that Selby has a clear-eyed view of who would make an appropriate member of her chameleonic gallery of performers; in fact, it’s hard to recall any musician/Friend who stuck out as being unsuitable for a role in the Selby complex, although most of us who have followed the organization for some years have our favourites.    But among the younger aspirants, Ward stands out for his sensitivity and a style of projection that sits well with the full-frontal approach of Selby and Valve.

I say ‘younger’, but Ward has been an inveterate musical traveller for some years, studying and playing and competing with perseverance over the last decade; he’s currently involved with the Australian National Academy of Music.   Such a wealth of experience shows in his playing style, which is well in line with Selby’s rarely disturbed certainty and Valve’s talent for producing a clear voice, no matter how much C string work is involved.   Ward also has something of an edge on his peers by way of a command of phrasing and a stylistic responsiveness allied to an eye for subtleties like miniscule Boskovsky-style hesitations.

Pretty close to the start of the C minor Trio, Ward displayed his crisp attack style, right on the money in those arresting staccato chords at bar 91, doubly appreciated thanks to the observance of the exposition repeat.   In fact, the movement was notable for some glowing passages like the early violin/piano canon at bar 21 which came across as if freshly minted; then, an ideally well-tuned cello/violin duet in octaves at bar 53; a subtle hesitation from the cello at his bar 183 entry; and a welcome reinforcement of your pleasure in bar 91’s chords with their reappearance in bar 294 – just as brisk and pointed as before, and exemplifying the underlying character of this work’s progress: crispness.

The following theme-and-variations movement gives the keyboard a good deal to do, starting with the first variation which proved neat and fetching, especially in its second half.   The strings got their own back in Variation 2 with its balanced canon/duet content notable for Ward’s supple line taking prominence and yielding it tactfully.   The minore Variation 4 found Valve generating a controlled plangent line during his solitary solo between bars 81 and 84.    As for the final variation, this is a pianist’s gift with a bright staccato figuration dominating the texture above recessive string support; Ward seemed uncomfortable with the metre, possibly because of the half-bar start, possibly not.   But all three musicians  made a consoling final 8-bar stretch to the coda.

Another fine instance of accomplished combination work came in the second half of the Menuetto with its elegant right-hand piano interruptions.   And a fine evenness of output emerged in the Trio‘s irregularly disposed first half while Selby’s second-part scales showed just how telling precision and restraint can be.   The finale’s first part was not repeated but you didn’t feel the lack overmuch because it’s a solid block of 146 bars that hammers home its message heavily, even in the E flat Major pages where the melodic quality is some way below the best that the whole trio has on offer.   For all that, the onslaught was relieved by details like a delectable violin/cello duet between bars 197 and 212 where the mirroring of each other and Selby’s initiatives lifted the instrumental dialogue to a very high level.    A not-quite-together microsecond marred the pianissimo entry at bar 238 but other details outweighed such a slight flaw, with Ward’s occasional slight hesitations breaking up the movement’s metrical inevitability.

There is not much to report about the symphony transcription performance which was most entertaining and assertive.   Beethoven took the task on most probably as a means of propagating his music but his realization is more than just letting the violin play its normal part, ditto the cello while the piano does all the work.    Yes, the keyboard covers a lot of the score’s content but the other instruments get to move outside what you’d think would be natural circumscriptions.    During the opening Adagio-Allegro, Beethoven has the strings perform a good deal of semiquaver scrubbing while the piano takes the high road.  Ward enjoyed a good deal of flute and oboe writing rather than just being confined to the top violin line and Valve had his share of the lower wind lines.   In all, this was an excellent demonstration of congruency and harnessed power with the violin producing bucketloads of elan and sheer drive.

At the Larghetto‘s opening, both strings took on woodwind lines before the violin returned to its normal role.   Here, with a slower tempo in play, you could see how Beethoven varied his now-limited textural possibilities which I’m afraid took my interest more than the actual playing although sudden moments broke through, like Selby’s firm address at bar 115 and the executants’ melting, delicate devolution between bars 154 and 158.  Adding to one’s obsession with the composer’s reduction process was the whip-smart interaction between all three performers who read each other with fine insight as in the hushed string work at bars 261-2.   Again, in the Scherzo, the musicians punched through the score with plenty of spirited enthusiasm, even if my attention fell heavily on what Beethoven did with his disposal of forces, particularly in the placid Trio.  Rationality returned in the Allegro molto finale where Selby infused procedures with an agility that you could not fault until a slight miscalculation about bar 158 before winding us up for a bristling conclusion after the composer’s brusque alarums and excursions in the final pages of this boisterously good-humoured symphony.

As with the C minor opening work, so with the Ghost: much interest fell on Ward because Selby and Valve are known quantities across its pages.   The opening Allegro vivace was notable for a firm volubility, packed with hold-and-release tension.   You could relish smaller matters apart from the power-packed urgency across the movement, like Selby’s poised, pianissimo arpeggios across bars 67 to 69 and the flaming power urging us across the development section, particularly the fugue-suggestive stretch from bar 124 to bar 144.   A pity that the group avoided repeating the development/recapitulation but it’s pretty long – about 180 bars, which makes a very demanding ask for any ensemble.

These performers made a suspenseful narrative of the spectral Largo, all the detail work intact and with no shrinking away from the composer’s deliberate roughness or emotional aggression.   Both strings confronted their lines’ stark statements and passages of vulnerability, as in the central passage where Selby is committed to endless hemi-demi-semiquavers until her break-out in bar 76 while the violin and cello commune in an interleaving duet that becomes increasingly fraught, before drawing back from the brink through a rapid diminuendo.

Finally, the happy Presto that dismisses all preceding gloom was appropriately jubilant, Ward revealing a challenging and steely timbre in the rising subject that starts in bar 35, then mimicking Valve’s punchy attack right up to the fermata at bar 87.  A momentary uneasiness arose after the piano’s solo at bar 109 where the strings seemed to be taken by surprise, compensated for by an infectious exuberance at the vehement main theme return at bar 211.   And one splendid surprise came out in the stretch from bar 388 to bar 397 where you were hard pressed to tell cello from violin because of their masterful inter-meshing.

Here was a top-notch recital in which the two senior players were traversing ground that they knew very well.    Ward is already an accomplished chamber musician, conscientious and conscious of his place and responsibilities in Beethoven’s three grand schemes.   And he is right on the note all the time – which is something I can’t say about all other young(ish) violinists.

What a difference it makes to hear a group operating on such a high level of insight and generating readings of sustained polish.    Over the pandemic months so far, we’ve been treated to a good many recitals from the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, the Melbourne and Queensland Symphony Orchestras’ websites, the Queensland Music Festival and some other odd men out.    Many of them have shown professionals at work, sometimes on very difficult work; other programs have opted to entertain with fripperies or a plethora of small-frame pieces.   Selby & Friends is maintaining its high aspirations, showing us all how it should be done: a welcome and reassuring presence in unhappy times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just a bit more, please

THE WANDERER

Jennifer Timmins and Leigh Harrold

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Thursday June 25

 

                                                                  Jennifer Timmins

As promised, we wandered: from Bach, to a prospective co-Bubble composer in Gillian Whitehead, then across the larger ditch to Robert Muczynski, and home to Schubert.   All very pleasant and dexterously accomplished, as you would expect from two ex-luminaries from the Australian National Academy of Music who collaborated successfully during their time at that finishing school – a source of national pride for us all throughout its distinguished, if threatened, career.  In fact, when you’re faced with an abomination like The Voice, you should cherish ANAM all the more as a source of real musicians.

Timmins/Harrold’s Bach was the last sonata, BWV 1035 in E Major, which I’ve always found the most amiable and rewarding of the lot, even if most of the running is left to the flute.   Their opening Adagio came across with an unforced directness, if probably not as sweet (the unfriendly might say ‘mannered’) in timbre as other performances, chiefly due to Timmins’ spartan use of vibrato.   The following Allegro impressed for its sturdy reliability and a deft treatment in both instruments of some light ornamentation that sparks up a set of pages that speak with the forthrightness of Handel.

As usual, the Siciliano took pride of place for its floating placidity that rises to an unstressed high-point and sinks back to a resonant rest.   This was the most eloquent playing so far with a penetrating and unsentimental flute line that followed a steady, unfaltering path.   Apart from one note missing from the flute  in bar 36 of the Allegro assai (an unavoidable breath necessity), the sonata’s finale proved to be steady and painstakingly thorough, with Harold given the chance for the shortest of  solo exposures from bar 4 to bar 8.    Still, this was a reading that had little room to breathe because none of the repeats were observed; to those of us with some expectations, the result was close to half a performance.   As well, the whole experience impressed as oddly dated, a blast from the not-too-distant past when harpsichords and wood flutes were rarely heard in this country’s Bach renditions.

Whitehead’s Taurangi duet is etymologically intended to propose themes of the wanderer and/or an unsettled state.   At the time of composition (1999), the composer was engrossed with the struggle of East Timor, which was then enduring the last vicious ravages of the Indonesian occupation; her intention, I think, was to communicate the ethnic and political uncertainty at play across that country.    In some way, the piece is an occasional lament that is combined with a firm statement of conviction; what that is exactly is open to interpretation.   On its first page, sequences of repeated piano chords lead to flute cadenzas of brittle rapidity, before the piece settles on a juxtaposition of assertive declamation with urgent flute trills and breathy or overblown notes, some of the latter directed into the piano, although what effect was intended didn’t travel very far in this broadcast.

Timmins was also constrained to produce some multiphonic passages to add to her challenges but the core of the work is a set of antiphonal responses between the instruments that finally settles on a mournful atmospheric psalm with Harrold operating inside his instrument generating a series of rapid glissandi while the flute returned to its opening cadenza interpolations.   Whitehead’s array of production techniques concludes with further multiphonics and string glissandi while silently depressed piano chords produce some excellent nimbus effects.

Even though both players enjoyed a great deal of independence throughout Taurangi, they also had true duet passages of some intensity.   But the piece came alive when the interpreters were allowed to wander solo, giving voice to Whitehead’s suggestive sonorities that can be married to the  terrible last days before the Indonesian army and its local sympathizers were ejected from the newly-born country.   This night’s two executants also see in Whitehead’s score a certain relevance to the current world situation which each day confounds hopes for determination and resolution – which terms probably mean the same thing.

I enjoyed Robert Muczynski’s Op. 14 Flute Sonata of 1961 – one of the American composer’s most popular works – right through the first Allegro deciso with its bright Latin rhythmic assertions and interplay; at first suggestive of Gershwin in Cuban Overture phase, but then moving  into line with Villa-Lobos and that writer’s more harmonically aggressive constructs; the whole leading to a brisk, if not slick, conclusion.  The pleasure endured through the 6/8-with-interpolations Vivace, a kind of moto perpetuo shared between Timmins and Harrold with each player given individual breaks before joining up for  narrative propulsion.  This is both fanciful and cleverly constructed writing, performed with clarity and polish.

With the ‘slow movement’ Andante, the flute solo abruptly brought to mind Prokofiev’s Flute Sonata of 1943 which has a much shorter solo.   But just a touch was enough to present the similarity and, after that, the comparison wouldn’t go away: the same lyrical meandering set against insistent statements, although Muczynski crops his farewells, eschewing the Russian composer’s sentimentality.   The final Allegro con moto completes a fair haul of vivid, active movements to this construct.   Again, reminiscences of  the Russian composer emerge regularly, although there are none of the earlier work’s more poetic interludes.   Timmins accounted for a major central cadenza (in strict time) with enthusiasm,  Harrold bouncing through a jazz-inflected keyboard role before a tack-bright finish from both players in a fine display of synchronicity.

To finish this recital, the duo offered their own transcription of Der Neugierige from Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin cycle.   It’s a superbly shaped song with just enough suggestive instrumental ambience in which to set the poet’s earnest questioning.  Timmins went for a pronounced vibrato here while Harrold burbled gently underneath.  I don’t know why it was included but it made for a refreshing sorbet after the preceding two works’ biting episodes.   In fact, we could have done with three or four of these transcriptions to flesh out a pretty under-length program which came in at about 45 minutes long.