Bach by the beach


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Peninsula Community Theatre, Mornington

Saturday June 18, 20, 2016

Macliver-Sara-04 - Copy

                                                                           Sara Macliver

Quite a pleasant experience catching up with the MCO at an out-of-town centre, although you are hard pressed to call Mornington that any more, with Melbourne’s suburban tentacles and freeways stretching further south by the month.   The community’s theatre is a no-frills but suitable venue for William Hennessy‘s young string players, their sound fabric coming through the hall with plenty of clarity and no error-shrouding echo.  Then again, a fair bit of this night’s output was as straightforward as you can get, the ensemble quite happy to bound through their work at full bore.

Apart from Calvin Bowman‘s song-cycle Die Linien des Lebens, seven Holderlin settings, the MCO played Bach, beginning with a Stokowski arrangement of the simple aria Mein Jesu, was vor Seelenweh.  Starting with a finely balanced statement for cellos and double-basses, a pair of violas joining in later, this was a luscious, lustrous setting in which the upper strings emerged for two strophes but left the bulk of the work to these lower-voiced musicians.  And it made a fine impression, especially the sympathetic solo of Michael Dahlenburg who gave full value to the famous conductor’s heart-on-sleeve, Romantic view of Bach.

The orchestra thinned down, though not by much, for the following Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, one instrument a line and the support of a chamber organ which gave an added weight to the bass texture, revivifying the spirit of Stokowski and not for the only time in the evening.  The reading proved to be beefy in tutti passages, the cellos urging through the first movement’s mix with enthusiasm.  As a substitute for the two-chord slow movement, we heard the C minor Violin Sonata’s opening Siciliano given with finely-spun eloquence by leader Shane Chen, Dahlenburg’s cello support a prominent presence.  The rapid last Allegro gave us loads of Baroque burble, heavy on the two accents in each bar, Merewyn Bramble heading a resonant viola trio with Hennessy showing his versatility by taking the third of these  lines.  Yet this finale also generated that individual Bach sound texture, thick with wood and vibrating strings as physical elements.

A scrap from The Art of Fugue, the Contrapunctus V where the inversions and stretti of the great compendium start, made for a moment of placid exposition, even if the concluding bars were ramped up dramatically to a this-is-the-end bloated statement.   Soprano Sara Macliver then began Bowman’s cycle, only to stop in the second Sybille segment as an audience-member was taken ill and interval was brought forward.  Beginning again, the soprano and MCO gave a sympathetic outing for this work which alternates full-blown lyrics with fragments of verse given sparse, mainly pizzicato accompaniment.  From the opening to Fruhling beginning the cycle, Bowman strikes a lyrical vein, suggestive in its violin writing of Tippett, if more concordant than the English master-composer.  But the work’s vocabulary refrains from being over-saccharine or too amiably pastoral with a good deal of assertive string support at play under Macliver’s wide-ranging line.

Later, in Abbitte, the emotional flavouring smacks more of Richard Strauss, showing a lavish richness of consonance between voice and orchestra, which dissipates in the succeeding Aus ‘Der Adler’ which exposes the most interesting, demanding vocal writing of the sequence.   A focus on viola timbre throughout Auf die Geburt eines Kindes offered a tenor-pitched complement to Macliver’s warm timbre in the cycle’s most comfortable pages, while the Strauss shadows gathered again for the final An Zimmern which opened with a substantial and moving solo cello paragraph under Hennessy’s tremolo violin.  In this quatrain comes the cycle’s title and the work concludes with sustained string chords, giving a sombre, majestic opulence to Macliver’s spacious outlining of the final transcendence-suggestive line, Mit Harmonien und ewigem Lohn und Frieden – Mahlerian in tone if not as sparse as that composer’s final philosophical musings.

This work shows a different aspect of Bowman’s output; well, different to me.  The harmonic language remains orthodox, for the most part, the vocal line clean and uncomplicated if willing to linger on specific phrases.  You hear fewer of the bucolic Vaughan Williams suggestions than in earlier pieces and, although the influences are still discernible, the composite language of these songs remains individual, the composer’s own.

Macliver returned to the program’s regular path with the second soprano’s Laudamus te from the B minor Mass, Bete aber auch dabei from the cantata Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit with Hennessy’s violin substituting for the original flute obbligato, and Vergnugen und Lust from the wedding cantata Gott ist unsre Zuversicht where pairs of violins and violas stood in for Bach’s two oboes d’amore.  The soprano’s subtle, underplayed ornamentation proved as delectable as ever, her articulation penetratingly precise through pages of highly mobile writing, with never a hint of unease or hesitation.  If you needed a key-point to demonstrate the singer’s expertise, it would be hard to surpass her smooth negotiation of the final aria’s central section: Das Auge, die Brust Wird ewig sein Teil An susser Zufriedenheit haben – here, words and music found an ideal fusion, each textual repetition to be relished.  After this bracket, you wondered why many another soprano bothers in the face of artistry in Bach of this quality.

Finishing the night, Anne-Marie Johnson gave a firmly administered treatment of the D minor Violin Concerto, probably the original format of the famous keyboard work in the same key.   Speaking of which, this definitely needed a harpsichord to add sparkle to a heavy string mass, Michael Fulcher‘s chamber organ again providing heft to an already well-encouraged bass component.   Johnson gave as good as she got in terms of output, urging out her line against an unapologetic string backdrop, although the slow central movement revealed a steely lyricism, welcome between the hectoring pair of Allegros. Some relief might have been brought into play by cutting numbers back in non-tutti moments; as it was, the finale’s continuo homophony became a driven chugging – energetic, for sure, but deficient in timbral variety or intellectual challenge.

Youthful enthusiasm pays off


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

April 17, 2016

Rebecca Chan
                    Rebecca Chan

Despite a lurching process from one end of Western music’s history to  the other – a Josquin motet from 1485  to Carl Vine‘s Third String Quartet of 1994  – the latest MCO concert was an invigorating business, presided over by Rebecca Chan who took on directorial duties as well as the solo line in Haydn’s G Major Concerto.   In a quest to make connections between gypsy music and some Baroque and Classical period writers,  Chan punctuated her offerings with excerpts from the Uhrovska Collection, a Slovakian miscellany of melodies arranged by the violinist for the forces available (11 strings and a lutenist), and occasionally serving as links while stands and players’ positions were being adjusted.

From her time with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Chan brought to this afternoon’s work that sort of scouring effect that Tognetti has made a feature of his group’s approach to pre-Romantic scores.  Setting the standard straight away, the MCO took an aggressive road with Telemann’s G minor Suite, La musette, making a biting attack on the Ouverture that grabbed your interest and sustained it through the following brief movements, Samantha Cohen‘s theorbo a vital presence as substitute for the usual harpsichord continuo.   In contrast to many another ensemble playing this music, the viola line made its presence felt, the duo of James Wannan and Simon Gangotena a contributing thread to the mix.

Vivaldi’s Four Violin Concerto, the first of the L’estro armonico set, found Roy Theaker taking the top line, with Shane Chen, Monique Lapins and Lynette Rayner his colleagues in a reading that continued the forward-projecting character of these performances, sustaining the suspension-rich tension even through a few patches of rhythmic discrepancy in the opening Allegro.  Michael Dahlenburg‘s account of the solo part in the same composer’s A minor Cello Concerto opened with a rapidly paced Allegro that turned placid arpeggios into exciting bouts of play, relieved by some effective if predictable dynamic terracing and a subtle rubato.

Chan’s Haydn interpretation proved to be polished and unaffectedly refined, animated in its opening, just as urgent in the Adagio‘s attractive arcs, then packed with vim for the bracing finale.  This violinist has the insight to leave any histrionics to the cadenzas and let the solo part speak for itself, without over-emphasizing the many trills or semiquaver runs.  Still, she can project well enough to dominate the texture, an audible voice even in tutti passages like the concerto’s final non-flamboyant bars.   This exercise in clarity made a fine companion piece for the C.P.E Bach String Symphony in B flat, which Tognetti and his band played here last October and which I have a fading memory of the ACO performing in Hamer Hall many years ago.   Just as with their Telemann, the young players gave this a surface layer of punchy drama, complete with action-packed leaps across the admittedly limited violin compass.   By the time of the final Presto, however, the intonation was suffering, not as reliably true as it had been in the program’s first half.

The concert proper concluded with part of Carl Vine’s Smith’s Alchemy, the assertive final movement with lashings of sound-rocket unisons and a trademark rhythmic emphasis that compensates for a dearth of interesting melodic matter.  It made for a brisk conclusion to this event, mirroring the vitality that permeated the opening Telemann suite.   Certainly, it showed more of a relationship with the gypsy pieces than two other oddities that emerged from nowhere in each of the afternoon’s halves.  String arrangements of Josquin’s Ave Maria and a Gesualdo madrigal., O dolce mio tesoro, gave service chiefly as respites from the program’s main urging thrust, but apart from an alleviation of tension, it was hard to work out if either of these texturally transparent pieces served any other purpose.

Nevertheless, Chan’s arrangements of about eight pieces from the Uhrovska collection made for pleasant listening.   The influence of gypsy music was admitted by Telemann and very obvious in parts of Haydn’s output, if not necessarily that clear in this afternoon’s violin concerto.   But the effect of these interpolations proved bracing, especially the second one of three that followed the opening work; Chan’s suggestion here of a dulcimer was remarkably effective. Later, a metrically changeable construct that preceded the Bach symphony brought the twin spectres of Bartok and Kodaly to the Recital Centre’s hall.  These fragments, moulded into shapely entities, mirrored the vivacity of Telemann’s Murky and Harlequinade movements in particular.

The pity is that MCO patrons stayed away in numbers.   While quite happy to pack in for yet another run-through of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, when it comes to a mildly experimental afternoon such as this one, without the presence of an over-familiar masterpiece or three, people would rather stay at home, it seems.  Well, their loss: this was a vital, interesting afternoon’s work, a tribute to Chan’s organizational skills and her talent at infusing other musicians with her enthusiasm.

Mozart all the way


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

March 6, 2016

Starting its 2016 activities, the city’s leading chamber orchestra eased its patrons into a kind of  contentment, a slippers-and-whisky mode with a diet of firm favourites and comfortable listening.   The main works came from Mozart, two of the incomparable masterpieces of Western music: his Symphony No. 40 in G minor, and the Clarinet Concerto from the last months of the composer’s life.  The MCO’s artistic director, William Hennessy, controlled  the readings from his usual concertmaster position, while the soloist for the concerto was David Griffiths, familiar to concert-goers from his work in the always-fresh Ensemble Liaison.

As leavening for these repertoire pillars, harpist Melina van Leeuwen took centre stage for two French works that typify her instrument’s repertoire as most of us know it: Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro requiring also flute, clarinet and string quartet, and Debussy’s Danse sacree et danse profane which have the soloist supported by a string orchestra. Perhaps these were not the most original works to program but they made amiable enough contrasts with the afternoon’s Mozart content.   Neither presented van Leeuwen with obvious problems, her generously spaced, ornately complex arpeggios at the opening to the Ravel work a promise of the fluency that she brought to the score’s major segment.

Not that the performance was blemish-free; the opening brief wind duet in thirds (Griffiths and an unknown flautist – I had no program) came over as uneasy, a sort of feeling-your-way that is made a more exact experience by a central conductor. Further, the piece gains a good deal more weight if, as on this occasion,  a string orchestra is employed – if that added heft is what you want.   Not that the composer had any problems with other musicians’ re-shapings of this piece but restricting the forces to a string quartet gives the more active stretches of the Allegro an agreeably febrile quality that a group three times that size smooths away.

Later, the Debussy test-piece enjoyed a fine airing, its open textures cleanly carried off in the mode-infested first half string writing while van Leeuwen gave full voice to the sacred dance’s rich two-hand chords.  After the stately,  hieratic suggestions of this opening set of pages, it always seems a comic relief when the D Major waltz marks out Debussy’s entry into the secular world that the second dance intends to represent.  This section is far more colourful for the soloist with a wide range of technical requirements and a rapid alternation between various techniques of sound production.  But van Leeuwen kept the interpretative tenor on an even keel, the details of harmonics and appoggiaturas coming across without unsettling stress, and the various ritenuto/a tempo changes handled with aplomb.

For the G minor symphony, Hennessy kept to an orthodox path; no abrupt tempo shocks, the dynamic shifts in keeping with the run of the score rather than an imposition of interpretative temperament, the all-important string complex working with dedication through these well-travelled pages.  The director was also lucky with his wind back-line, the horn duo a touch over-prominent but accurate.   If we didn’t learn much new about this score, we experienced a reassurance of sorts in the experience of its outer movements’ unforgettable restless determination.   Some might have preferred to hear one of the earlier symphonies – a Haffner or a Linz, a Paris, even No. 33 in B flat that I don’t think many of us would have heard live – but there is also a school of belief that you can never get enough of this work; certainly, those patrons near me were more than pleased with the experience.

Griffiths is a veteran with this concerto; Sunday must have been the third or fourth time I was hearing his interpretation and it has always given an invigorating pleasure.  The emphasis is not on the mellow and smooth but more concerned with both expressiveness and a restrained jauntiness.  Rather than barnstorming through the first movement, this musician holds back on the wallowing chalumeau texture and aims for subtlety of dynamic, including some improbably soft cadential passages, moments where the player  takes risks in production as his output approaches inaudibility. And while the central Adagio came over with admirably simple phrase-shaping and a welcome emotional reserve, the final Rondo impressed for its good-humoured bounce, bringing out the composer’s open-hearted humanity with great persuasiveness; even the scale-rich passage-work illustrated with the closest thing music gets to aristocratic wit.  Here was a performance to treasure.

David Griffiths (
                      David Griffiths 

This program will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Friday March 11 in the Deakin Edge, Federation Square; a space that seats less than half of the Recital Centre’s Murdoch Hall. Given this quality of playing and the program’s appeal, the place should be packed.