Or what’s a heaven for?


Tinalley String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Wednesday May 4, 2016

Tinalley String Quartet

                                                                             Tinalley String Quartet

Doing the right thing by its patrons, this amiable ensemble opened  the first of its skeletal Melbourne series (two recitals?!) with an ever-welcome standard: Ravel in F.   First violin Adam Chalabi invested the deceptively open-ended first theme with just enough sweetness while second violin Lerida Delbridge mirrored his approach when the time came to share the melodic statement’s second strophe.   But violist Justin Williams‘ first point of exposure at bar 28 sounded roughly delivered in this context, a moment of discomfort in the work’s steady progress.   Not that this persisted as Williams gave a moving account of the D minor duet at a few octaves’ distance with Chalabi a bar after Letter 4: one of the most memorable passages in the quartet, both here and when it recurs in the rather reactionary recapitulation.

For the following Assez vif, cellist Michelle Wood made fine work of a solid underpinning in the oscillation between 3/4 and 6/8 that makes these pages a challenge in preserving clarity of metre.   Even better came in the harmonic shifts of the quartet’s Tres lent central movement, here handled with appreciable sensitivity, especially given the complexity of Ravel’s scoring with demi-semiquavers and semiquavers bandied about across all lines in the central pages.   More to the point, the Tinalley musicians took a firm grip on the composer’s slow ascent to a fierce climax in the passionate fortissimo at the Letter 8 shift to a Modere change of pace: a tellingly balanced passage of play.

Following the Ravel work’s half-hour length, interval signified a point of demarcation.  What followed came as an abrupt change of pace, both musically and emotionally.  With guest artist Lior Attar, the quartet worked through a compendium intended to illustrate the recital’s title, those last lines of Gertrude’s self-justifying first speech to her sardonic son.   A collaboration between Ade Vincent and Lior sets both Thomas’s Do not go gentle and American poet Hazel Hall‘s Hours as a matched pair.  For the Welsh writer’s vehement elegy, the composers have opted for a largely diatonic language, the quartet offering chords that slip and slide with some Sculthorpe-type rapid glissando swipes as colour-points.   The vocal line is a simple lyric with suggestions of Celtic folk-music, the only aggression coming in the fourth Wild men verse when the violins  make substitutes for guitars, the cello indulges in a slap-bass underpinning while the viola intones the melody line.   At the end, the singer is left unaccompanied to repeat the poem’s last line with fading strength – which bears comparison with Thomas’s own hypnotic reading of his poem.

The Hall setting begins with an instrumental hoe-down, changes for the second verse into sustained chords for the Hours eternal in their pain before reverting to the heftier movement, violins and cello rapping their instruments alongside pizzicato chords from the viola.   Again, the poem’s final line enjoys a repetition, but the matter that Lior sings again falls into the folk-song genre.   As companion pieces, the songs offer a mildly different atmosphere and, while nobody is over-stretched, both instrumentalists and singer gave the work every care.

Three of Dvorak’s Cypresses moved us into the land of the love-lorn, Chalabi bearing responsibility for pretty much all the vocal line from the original songs, Williams’ viola putting in a momentary helping hand for O nasi lasci, the last of the three extracts performed.   These sat uneasily beside the preceding songs, mainly because the Czech master’s melodies impressed as more sophisticated and expressive, evoking both desire and melancholy without self-indulgence and also having the unteachable gift (one that Dvorak did not always exercise) of being just long enough.

Lior sang his well-known My Grandfather to his own guitar accompaniment; again, the melody is Celtic-suggestive but also has an undercurrent of bush balladry.  Even after several performances, it still makes a direct emotional impact and earned its place in this program’s Seven Ages of Man musical symposium by bringing several significant strands together – feckless youth, old age sans everything, the cares of maturity.

Answering this, the Tinalleys played Barber’s Adagio in its original setting, a piece that has become a sort of American national elegy since its association with the deaths of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Kennedy; a lesser source of grief was its performance on the day that Trump won his way through to the Republican nomination.  In their carefully-paced interpretation, the players reminded us of how voluble this set of pages can be without that corner-rounding smoothness you hear in the commonly-heard string orchestra arrangement, and how finely Barber contrives his slow progress to the work’s massive climactic chords.

Lior returned for the recital’s finale: Sim Shalom from the Compassion cycle, which he wrote for voice and orchestra with Nigel Westlake who transcribed it for this program.   Here, the vocal inflections are Judaic and Arabic, the modes employed suggesting both heritages in an affecting prayer for peace.    Again, this is not challenging music, making its points with a simple sincerity but bringing into play Lior’s extraordinary alto register, strikingly clean and penetrating   –  just the right vehicle for this final review of life’s span in a program that, throughout its latter half, made an ambitious grasp at illustrating the ineffable.

We should remember them


Ensemble Liaison

Melbourne Recital Centre

Wednesday April 27, 2016

Ensemble Liaison

                                                                                  Ensemble Liaison

As the group’s front-man said, this was a program of composers who don’t get many performances these days.  Well, that’s certainly true but a further problem is that, with two of them, we used to hear only a few works from their considerable compositional achievements, yet even these popular choices are currently falling by the wayside.  Still, this night went some way towards resurfacing their names, even if the point of the night’s title seemed rather arcane after the first ten minutes or so.

At the opening, the Liaisoners welcomed Sophie Rowell, Associate Concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.  With foundation members Svetlana Bogosavljecvic, cellist, and pianist Timothy Young, Rowell performed Bloch’s Three Nocturnes of 1924, the year when the composer took out American citizenship.  As Griffith’s indicated, Bloch’s name is one that is becoming a rarity in concert halls, although time was when the Schelomo rhapsody was a welcome annual revenant, the Concerto Grosso No. 1 was not unknown, the Israel Symphony had its adherents, and every violinist had Baal Shem in the repertoire, as cellists did the From Jewish Life sketches.

If anything in the program impressed as black, these small pieces came close, even though the darkness suggested was simply the same night that permeates Chopin’s works of the same descriptor.  In fact, both the opening Andante nocturnes bore the Chopin imprint, if the vocabulary proved more complex.  While the first is scenic, its successor held more expansive character with some splendidly broad melodic speeches in its central pages with a lavishly Romantic violin/cello duet.  As for the last one –  Tempestuoso – being jazzy, as Griffiths and other commentators suggest, you could find faint traces if you listened hard but the piece impressed more for its irregular metre and sudden vivid strokes of vitality that served as comparison with the piece’s predecessors.  The trio gave the set fine treatment, Young a responsive support for the two dominant and active string players.

As for strangers on  a program, Dohnanyi would seem to be in a worse case than his Swiss/American contemporary. Not too long ago, the Variations on a Nursery Tune appeared in every Youth Concert series I can remember, as well as occasionally hitting the big-time Red Series or Master Series sequences.  But as for the Hungarian composer’s operas, the symphonies, the piano and violin concertos, any of the piano pieces (and he was a great pianist, as the recordings attest) – you can live a lifetime and not come across them.  I seem to remember his Stabat Mater being sung by an adventurous women’s choir or three many years ago.  All the more welcome, then, was this airing of the Sextet in C Major with guests Elizabeth Sellars on violin and Christopher Moore playing viola alongside Bogosavljecvic’s cello in a trio facing Griffiths’ clarinet and final guest Roman Ponomariov‘s horn, with Young acting as circuit-breaker.

The shade of Brahms falls across much of this score, especially in its grandiose moments like the opening Allegro appassionato which sounded at its best when the adjective applied full-bore.  With plenty of octave/unison work and surging, eloquent melodic swathes, the score maintained involvement from the start and sustained it – which you would be hard pressed to assert about many another post-Brahms piece.  Ponomariov impressed throughout the work but nowhere more than in this section where he played the opening subject and powered through a wide-reaching part with only one slight slip.

Young and the string trio made a beguiling start to the Intermezzo: Adagio in A flat, giving the sentiment room to settle before the 12/8 march interlude introduced the wind duo’s direct-speaking statements that made an excellent study in timbre-mixing and just how much leeway to allow your partner.   In place of a minuet, Dohnanyi uses another allegro in 2/4 with the clarinet giving out a tune that might have escaped from one of the Brahms Serenades. This multi-partite sequence leads to a reminiscence of the horn’s first movement initial melody and suddenly the composer takes us into his finale with a perky and simple C major piano tune that is shared  by all (even the horn) despite its fast-moving opening mordent shape. As with the opening pages, this section of the work impresses most when the tension is high – a hard thing to achieve with so simple a tune – but Dohnanyi eventually works his players into an emphatic D flat Major, only to slip sideways in to a C Major perfect cadence.  It’s not witty music (what is?) but its expansive good-humour is patently obvious and these performers gave it rousingly firm handling with not a noir trace in sight.

Osvaldo Golijov‘s The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind bases itself on the work of a medieval Provencal Kabbalist rabbi, specifically his dictum that the universe’s objects and occurrences are founded on the combinations of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet.  As a musical illustration of this theory, Golijov’s work for clarinet and string quartet holds three main movements celebrating, Aramaic, Yiddish and Hebrew.  These are encircled by a prelude which takes in the first movement’s Aramaic tone while the Postlude leads out of the final movement’s extended prayer for clarinet-as-cantor.

The performance proved engrossing, dramatic but not blackly so, although for this listener the interest fell pretty strongly on its physical character: the sounds urged from the quartet and their lengthy phases of near-stasis, and Griffiths’ oscillation between piccolo clarinet, instruments in B flat and A, bass, and a concluding passage featuring the basset horn.  As for what was played  –  Golijov’s material  –  that seemed, in essence, interchangeable in structure and melodic process; but what else would you expect with three aspects for the same linguistic heritage, especially when the klezmer-heavy middle movement contained so many Jewish popular-music tropes that somehow seemed to leach into surrounding areas?   As a display by Griffiths, the work gave testament to his technical skill and his ability to construct and sustain the composer’s emotional and sound worlds.   What was missing, I suppose, was something that the composer could not provide or never intended to cover in the first place: an original illustration in music of the complex mentality and imagination of a great Jewish mystic.   As things turned out, at many stages of the middle Yiddish and final Hebrew movements, I was highly distracted by memories of the  Schindler’s List sound-track by John Williams.

Yet the night’s work provided some worthwhile insights into two Jewish composers – one who imbibed his heritage and turned it into a fluent individual voice, and another who grapples with the opportunities and responsibilities of the jaded present day.  Oh, and it also brought to vivid life that marvellous, reassuring sextet, filling out our experiences of a fine musician’s work.

Recital’s insightful first half


Melbourne Recital Centre

April 19, 2016

Stephen Hough (musicavivaaustralia.wordpress.com)
                                          Stephen Hough

Here was one of those nights when it might have been better to leave at interval.  The popular British pianist, on his third solo tour for Musica Viva, is playing a program that has been well honed as Hough has toured with it through minor (and sub-dominant) English centres, France, Taiwan, China, Japan, Belgium, the Barbican, Canada, followed by a clutch of appearances in the United States.  With his final Australian performance here on April 30, Hough will have given this sequence an airing nearly 30 times in ten months – which is putting to one side his many concerto appearances and interpolated recitals with cellist Steven Isserlis.  The man is nothing if not driven to perform and, judging by Tuesday’s audience, he has an enthusiastic following.

True to his reputation for favouring the less-trodden paths of repertoire, Hough began his night with Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, D. 784.   A clean delivery with a firm hand on the middle movement’s andante direction made this one of the event’s highlights, even if you might quibble with some pauses and hiatus  points in the first movement that admittedly gave some respite to the slow-to-hatch dramatic bursts in this spartan set of pages.  The pianist’s treatment of the finale with its oscillation between overlapping triplets and its seamlessly extended melodic line in the more regular/straight 3/4 interludes helped to underline the message that, with this composer, more is required than just relying on the score to give interest through inbuilt contrasts; Hough treats Schubert as an ongoing narrative where the parts have to be knitted into an intellectual complex.

The following version of Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue impressed even more for the executant’s clarity of texture in a piece where such a quality is often hard to find under washes of pedal clouding.  While the opening pages held interest for Hough’s digital control, his exposition of the chorale with its long sequence of arpeggiated chords complicated by the left hand crossing over, sometimes awkwardly, to outline the melodic line, was remarkable for its authority, the progress of this section fluent and rhythmically sensible.   For once, the fugue capped the triptych, Hough making the later pages almost lucid, even where the action borders on the over-rich in chromatic shifts.  At the conclusion, you were left with the sense of a task accomplished with firm discipline and a brake on any form of excess.

As before interval, two composers featured in the recital’s second half – Liszt, and Hough himself.   His recently composed Piano Sonata No. 3 was commissioned by the British Catholic periodical, The Tablet, to celebrate the publication’s 175th year of operations.   Subtitled Trinitas, it has religious connotations beyond its title but the most prominent feature of its nature is its basis in 12-tone row compositional technique.  You will find only traces of the Schoenberg ethos, let alone style, here and pretty much nothing of anything serial.   Hough bases his row on major and minor triads and the work’s tendency is towards giving these building blocks pre-eminence in their natural state. The concept is at least as old as the Berg Violin Concerto with its overlapping triads as initial G minor-establishing (for a moment!) material.  Hough’s first-of-three movements, a Lento subtitled ‘Bold, stark’, lives up to its own descriptors and leaves a spacious, clangorous impression.   The middle Allegro, ‘Punchy, jazzy’, struck me as a kind of toccata, one-note-at-a-time passages at high speed punctuated by some chordal breaks.  The last part, an Andante, eventually quotes a hymn – again bringing up memories of the Berg concerto – and also makes use of a high tintinnabulating punctuating sequence, serving as a kind of decorative motif but wearing out its welcome all too quickly.  Certainly, the flavour in this last segment of the sonata seems to be semi-liturgical. in many listeners’ cases proposing an emotional response; to this listener, however, it seemed a comedown after the harmonic challenges of the work’s earlier stages.

The Liszt bracket contained the first two Valses oubliees; elegantly outlined by Hough, assuredly, but works where the memories summoned up are of gestures and fripperies, lacking anything to feed on apart from a kind of subdued virtuosity and, in the first, an elegiac resonance that Liszt intended to evoke.  Finally came two of the Transcendental Studies: No. 11, the Harmonies du soir extravaganza, and then its antecedent, once known as Appassionata.

Hough made fine work of the first of these, especially when the richly-chorded melody of the Piu mosso emerged triple-piano at bar 38: a fine example of gradually intensifying the dynamic scale.   The No. 10 is intensely demanding and rapid in its figuration; in this case, it sounded over-pedalled and often hard to decipher.  In fact, the pace was so punishingly allegro molto agitato right from the beginning that the concluding stretta simply melded into the work’s pell-mell execution rather than actually raising the energy level.

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 (mco.org.au)
                      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.

Ring in the half-new


Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

March 3, 2016

In its current format, this ensemble shows loads of skill.  Alongside the two survivors from its previous formation – viola Stephen King and cello Sharon Draper – the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s co-concertmaster, Dale Barltrop, has taken on first violin duties, with another MSO musician,  Francesca Hiew, playing second violin.  On first showing, the combination makes a fine collective sound, particularly in the central elements of Wednesday’s program.  The solitary problem comes with the bass line which, in the new context, can sound muffled.  Which could come from the nature of Draper’s peers – Barltrop’s sound colour is precise and fine, Hiew his timbral complement with an output of solid determination,  King maintaining his full-bodied and accurate projection, a continual pleasure from this leading light in the country’s chamber music tenor ranks.

Australian String Quartet
                                    Australian String Quartet 

Or it could arise from the nature of the instrument.  The ASQ is using a chest of Guadagnini instruments, the cello the earliest made.   Time – and usage – will tell if the instruments are well-matched in more than name or provenance.  And it has to be said that the under-demonstrative character of the bass layer was not uniform throughout the program; in fact, the more contemporary the music, the more it entered into the mix as a full partner.

The players began with Beethoven, the last of the Op. 18 set and  an amiable introduction to the group’s standard. Barltrop  initiated a firm and clear-speaking interpretation, the opening imitation-work with Draper jaunty and clear although the group’s inter-dependence showed at its most remarkable in the Scherzo/Trio third movement where the rapid speed made the violins’ syncopations as efficiently discombobulating as the composer would have wished.  As well, you could find much to admire in the balance of levels during the final movement’s famous La Malincolia first page adagio and the group made a determined fist of the disappointing Allegretto that follows, pages where the effort always seems more gripping than the material.

Balancing this conservative-with-a-difference first gambit, the ASQ finished their night in Schumann’s  A minor, a score that is heard rarely enough, in my experience mainly at chamber music competitions when a young ensemble tries to break away from the expected Romantic-period offering and generally does itself no good.  Luckily, the work enjoyed a fine run-through this time around, King partnering Hiew in a passionate give-and-take dialogue during the formally simple but voluble central Adagio.

The night’s guest, percussionist Claire Edwardes, contributed a vibraphone part to the Melbourne premiere of Matthew Hindson‘s String Quartet No. 4.  In two movements, the work sets up a contrast between animation and quiescence, although the freneticism of its first half was of a milder order than Barltrop’s introductory remarks had indicated; for sure, it lived up to its promise of action, packed with vaulting leaps of scales and arpeggio passages, the vibraphone adding a Bergian cast to the texture, if the experience yielded not much more interest than that of watching five performers beavering away enthusiastically at patterns.  The following movement almost falls into sustained melody but interests more as an exercise in dexterity treating uncomplicated, diatonic intervallic sequences – a placid cantilena for the most part, again with no pretensions to striking out in new directions, apart from the percussion overlay.

Later, Edwardes provided her own soundscape for three movements taken from John’s Book of Alleged Dances, the off-centre amalgam by John Adams that manages to achieve that welcome rarity in American music: wry humour.  In place of the prepared-piano percussion tape loops set off by a quartet member, Edwardes utilised a set of everyday implements as a live-performer substitute; quite satisfactorily, as matters turned out. The clattering tram ride of Judah to Ocean was a triumph for the percussionist-arranger, the clanks and non-resonance of the piano’s stopped strings imitated with high success, while the following Habanera and Rag the Bone came across to the back of the hall without rousing much disappointment in their new sonic format, which actually added some spice to Adams’ tendency to labour his own atmosphere.

As a new start, this recital ticked many buttons.  It established the group’s authority in its handling of received repertoire; not simply by reviewing over-exposed quartets but by taking on a quirky, young Beethoven and the most original of Schumann’s three essays. The ASQ actually commissioned Hindson’s new work – admittedly with the help of several partners –  but the move  made clear that the players look for challenges, wish to stimulate local writers, and are quite prepared to take on unexpected partnerships in order to add to their recital experience.

On July 4, the group plays Webern’s brusque/wispy Five Pieces, one of Haydn’s Op. 20 in which  the composer dragged the string quartet into shape, Joe Chindamo’s two-year-old Tempesta, and Mendelssohn’s No. 6, his last.   On October 24, the ensemble’s third series program begins with Mozart’s final essay, K. 590, moves to Ligeti’s Metamorphoses nocturnes, and ends with Ravel.


East is East and . . .


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

December 9, 2015

Caricature of Vivaldi Il prete rosso by Pier Leone Ghezzi                                       (1723)

In virtually identical fashion, the ACO began and ended its Melbourne year with this program built around Vivaldi’s well-worn quartet of violin concertos.  Richard Tognetti roused audience approbation for his vital interpretations of these familiar pages at both last Wednesday’s packed concert and back in the last week of February.  With characteristic mastery, he found refreshing novelties in both tutti passages and solos – heaving the line into faster or slower pace to unsettle expectations, lingering suggestively over chromatic ascents, then abruptly hurtling through whole segments in the Autumn and Winter scores with remarkable rapidity, and always finding a ready response from his associates – a string nonet of ACO regulars, Neal Peres Da Costa oscillating between harpsichord and chamber organ in performing continuo offices, Tommie Andersson also doing dual service on theorbo and guitar.

So far, so fair.  These concerts have a well-earned reputation for rattling cupboards, raising dust, turning on unfiltered lights.  Along with a re-viewing of the season-celebrating evergreens, with two isolated Vivaldi movements from other concertos and a Gabrieli sonata for extra Venetian heft, Tognetti arranged a juxtaposition of European Baroque and contemporary Egyptian through a collaboration with the Tawadros brothers, Joseph playing oud and James on the tambourine-like riq and occasionally the bendir hand-drum.  Not that this musical association is new; both Tawadros musicians have been performing with the ACO for almost 15 years.

But this program proposed a more serious aim than a mirror reflecting culturally differing musical elements.  Tognetti has been looking for a common ground between the worlds of Islam and the Venetian Republic with specific reference to music, given that the inter-relationship certainly existed in artefacts, goods and solid artistic objects, not to mention that trite descriptor of cross-cultural  pollination – cuisine.

But when it comes to music, the influences, one-sided or mutual, prove difficult to track down.  In the end, what this program offered seemed unconvincing, even more so after a second experience.  Joseph’s lute-like instrument served competently in giving an edge to the orchestra’s output, reinforcing Andersson’s timbre if with a more brusque sound-quality, less happy doubling the solo line in several concerto movements.  Joseph’s percussion underpinning, especially in the more bouncy third movements, sounded like an unnecessary adjunct, sadly reminiscent of that inane version of the first Allegro in Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 which was supplied with a drum-kit undertow.  What did the insertion of that percussive supplement add to the Mozartian experience?  Precious little, if anything.   I fear, the same applied to this Vivaldi fusion experience.

Interleaved between the Vivaldi concertos and single movements, Joseph presented seven of his own compositions, episodic constructs with occasional spotlights on ACO players – Tognetti, of course, and bass Maxime Bibeau – but the focus centred consistently on the oud, apart from one extended riq solo to begin Give or Take.   Modal melodies, sprightly metrical set-ups, plenty of unison work for the ACO strings, cadenza-type breaks all helped to create a specific sound-world although I found it hard to differentiate between most of these pieces and what I’ve heard from Turkey and Iran.  Complicating the mix, an Indian influence is inescapable, the riq’s rapidity and ability to produce rapid-fire bursts and semi-complex patterns resembling the tabla in everything but the use of the palm, while the decorative ripples from Joseph’s lute occasionally came very close to a sitar’s enunciation of a raga.

Yet, while both the orchestra and its guests entered into each other’s worlds with that confidence gained through a long-time aesthetic conversation and built on the performing security invested in the last night of a national tour taking in four state capitals,  their respective worlds, their basic languages remained discrete.  In the opening Gabrieli sonata for three violins, it seemed that an attempt was made to give lines an Eastern curve – hesitant, languorous, dynamically restrained – but when all parts were well under way, the Orient disappeared and the instrumental fabric reverted to type.   In the Tawadros pieces, the ACO players sounded as if added on, providing a sound quality that all too often sounded suggestive of an old-fashioned the dansant straight out of Death on the Nile.  When Tognetti took a prominent part, the spectre of Stephane Grappelli and his Hot Club Quintet loomed unnervingly close.   Added to this odd non-Venetian shadow of reminiscence, the works  sometimes began promisingly – the oud solo at the beginning of Point of Departure with suggestions of intriguing irregularities,  a similarly expectation-lifting start to Permission to Evaporate  – but settled for rapid-fire rushes of activity, negotiated with a palette of colours in which eventually you laboured to find points of differentiation, let alone any timbral, melodic, harmonic or rhythmic congruence with the European scores.

Perhaps I’m wrong.  Further exposure to Tawadros’ music may reveal connections with music of the European Mediterranean that are definitely discernible in several parameters.  At present, the links continue to elude. Not that this concerned the rest of the MRC audience, who were fortunate to hear these players in the clear acoustic of the Recital Centre’s Elizabeth Murdoch space rather than at the ACO’s usual theatre of operations in Hamer Hall, as was the case in February.  A well-applied amplification system helped even more in heightening accessibility, particularly during the central movement to Vivaldi’s Autumn where Da Costa filled in its 45 bars with a deftly executed  solo over the semi-static string chords.  More importantly, it put us up-close with the Tawadros brothers’ determined attack and sharp delivery right from their opening Kindred Spirits – one of the concert’s most effective demonstrations of their craft.

Light on Schubert


Melbourne Art Song Collective

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

November 30, 2015

Michael Smallwood

Almost five months ago, baritone Florian Boesch accompanied by Malcolm Martineau performed the three Schubert song-cycles as a job lot for the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series: solid readings, eloquent in address, determinedly serious if not actually stern in their impact.  Such an interpretative approach is generally to be expected: two of the sets – Winterreise and Die Schone Mullerin – illustrate tragedies.  But both of these cycles offer combinations of light and dark, excesses of enthusiasm as well as of depression, and this alternation came over clearly in Monday night’s reading of the Mullerin sequence from tenor Michael Smallwood and pianist Eidit Golder.

One of the factors that made this recital so exceptional was Smallwood’s splendid diction; every word counted and came across with sterling precision.  Yes, it’s much easier to achieve this in the small confines of the Salon, as opposed to Boesch’s having to cope with the Murdoch Hall acoustic, but the young Australian sustained his precision of articulation from the strongly accented opening Das Wandern, to the last soft strophes of Des Baches Wiegenlied.  In between, the tenor’s operatic experience told in bracing accounts of Ungeduld, typified by a deft alternation between the nervous excitement of each verse’s first five lines and the proud assertiveness each time in the concluding Dein ist mein Herz proclamation, deludedly one-sided as it turns out to be.

While Smallwood maintained a fluent delivery in less taxing numbers like Morgengruss or the four-square patterns of Mein!, more complex structures demonstrated his facility of even output – the long phrases of Pause, the erratic intensity that permeates Die bose Farbe, the shifts in character between the various sections of Am Feierabend where the poet/singer’s fate is determined.  Dynamic gradations sparked interest in practically all of the cycle’s 20 components but just as noticeable was Smallwood’s use of his high register: at times stentorian and bold, at others mezza voce for the high-mark of a curved phrase, flautando verging on falsetto in restrained, tense moments of introspection (although what parts of this obsessive work fall outside that descriptor?).

Golder, the most considerate of accompanists, put hardly a finger wrong throughout the cycle’s length, diligently negotiating the wide-ranging elements that are exercised during the work’s progress; to my ears, the most notable being those amiable but difficult-to-phrase semiquaver flurries in Wohin?,  the circular pattern-work of Halt!, scads of gruff low-lying triplets during Die bose Farbe, and the eventually mobile but disturbingly insistent upper pedal notes of the work’s last lied.

With her instrument open on the short stick, Golder offered a chameleonic support for her singer, not fearing to take an aggressive note when the attack directive called for it, happy to take geschwind on face value for Der Jager and  Eifersucht und Stolz and observe its various modulations for other lyrics.  But the most impressive characteristic of her work was not its beneficence but her awareness of the singer’s needs. It was rare to hear a hint of rhythmic dislocation, although it would be difficult to achieve any discrepancy in something like Der Jager which these executants took at breakneck speed.

In sum, here was a light-filled version of Schubert’s compendium which sustains its underpinning of despairing innocence to the end.  While many collaborators in Die schone Mullerin can offer impressive moments, only informed intelligences like Smallwood and Golder can take you without a mis-step along the traveller’s journey, outlining with clarity and dedication each step along its slow downward gradient; an impressive partnership that contrived to make this major work both technically clean and interesting.



Jokey American, sombre Czech


Sutherland Trio

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

November 24, 2015

Sutherland Trio

Pairing the Ives Piano Trio with Dvorak’s  F minor No. 3 presented something of a surprise in this latest recital at the MRC from an estimable ensemble of Melbourne musicians: violin Elizabeth Sellars, cello Molly Kadarauch, piano Caroline Almonte.   While the Czech composer pours out a chain of luxuriant melodies tinged if not infused with folk-song suggestions, the American’s one essay in the form leavens his love of dissonance with a strong melodic current running through its outer movements, atypically diatonic in the concluding Moderato con moto where the spectre of 19th century Romanticism looms unexpectedly large.

It wouldn’t be Ives without contrasts and the trio’s central Presto makes a relentless, eventually unnerving amalgam of non-original melodic fragments that lead to a critical climax which exhausts the ears through simple informational overload reinforced by forceful dynamic levels.  Ives might have intended a brand of levity by naming the movement TSIAJ (This Scherzo is a joke) but the humour is fierce, a case of piling Pelion upon Ossa where the references to hymns and popular tunes weld into a massive complex, extraordinarily dense given the small sound resources employed.

Dvorak’s trio  stands as one of the master’s more dramatically consistent chamber music constructs, particularly for its substantial first movement’s grandiose sweep and developmental density.  Despite many caveats, the influence of Brahms remains consistent throughout; open to a page of the first Allegro‘s development and the actual physical aspect of the score makes you look twice.  Yes, you can also point to irregular metrical structures that the older writer would not have used but the textural variety offers many grounds for complementary comparison. Further, the writing for piano is often as clangorously dominant in effect as in an early-to-mid period Brahms chamber work.

The Sutherlands made fine exponents of the Ives trio,  Kadarauch giving the first movement’s opening duo section plenty of wide-ranging eloquence, followed in similar form by Sellars when her turn to outline the 27 bars of material came around.  For that helter-skelter scherzo, the effect was of diving in with suspenseful energy, the players beavering at their responsibilities without drawing breath.  This is the Ives sound as many people find it – ignoring the lashings of broad, singing simplicity to be found in the symphonies, violin sonatas, string quartets and tone sets sitting alongside the polytonal, polyrhythmic, poly-polyphonic, multi-textural collages of the Three Pieces in New England or the jagged piano writing of the Three Page and Concord Sonatas.  Here the impetus came from Almonte’s keyboard which, as required, often threw the two strings into low relief.

Ives moves into a less frenetic world for his finale, the language kept simple and accessible with lengthy paragraphs of interwoven mesh, the whole reaching the composer’s individual vision of the transcendental in a sequence of concluding variants on Rock of Ages, a meditation here played with care and requisite placidity: a passage that you wished could go on and on.

The Dvorak trio also enjoyed more of a clenched-teeth style of interpretation,  Almonte finding plenty of resonance in the outer movements, which featured passages where Kadarauch’s cello was kept well-recessed.  Still, you would be hard to please if you found the focal Poco adagio deficient: Sellars and Kadaurach combining in the canonic melody-lines with fine sympathy, all performers at their most persuasive in the B Major middle segment where the dark tenor of the work dissipates for a time.

In fact, the main problem with this interpretation came from an underlining of its already sombre character.  While the Ives presented sonorous challenges and consolatory ease in turns, this Dvorak impressed as over-determined, so that the twists into and out of action in the concluding Allegro lacked a balance between heft and lightness, the impact  more of a relentless drive.  Dvorak was living through emotional stress at this time but I think that this interpretation hammered that historical  message with excessive vigour in the score’s two supporting outer pillars.


A Musical Portrait

Ludovico’s Band

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

November 17, 2015

                                                                                    Ludovico’s Band 

In this final 2015 recital given by a consort notable for the high calibre of its members, the five contributing composers were producing work during England’s Caroline Era, the reign of Charles I which tore the country apart and, in the process, put much of its cultural heritage in peril; not just music, although we tend to slide past these particular decades between the brilliant ferment of Tudor composition and the brief-lived glory of British music that is Henry Purcell.  For this occasion, Ludovico’s Band comprised six instrumentalists, including the extra triple harp of Hannah Lane to partner co-director Marshall McGuire’s instrument, with guest mezzo Sally Anne Russell singing works by Nicholas Lanier and Shakespeare’s known collaborator, Robert Johnson.

The timbre melange for this brief recital, which included purely instrumental music by William Lawes, John  Jenkins and some scraps from John Playford’s Dancing Master compendium, gave top-line honours to Julia Fredersdorff‘s violin, with a fellow-string in Ruth Wilkinson’s gamba occupying a supple support role except for a D minor trio sonata by Jenkins where the pair shared the work-load with occasional harp interludes.  But for the most part, plucked instruments dominated, the harps partnered by Tommie Andersson’s alternation between theorbo and lute, Samantha Cohen also employing her theorbo but working through a good part of the night on her guitar.

The result, when all were engaged simultaneously as in the opening D minor Harp Consort by Lawes, No. 4 in the set of the eleven, made a rich tapestry, a generous buzzing brought about by an inevitable arpeggiation when harps and theorbos each play more than one note.  This work’s opening Fantazy saw the melodic burden shared between Fresersdorff and McGuire, both preserving the music’s innate stateliness right through to a noticeably vigorous, if brief, sarabande.  A less generous amplitude came in the same composer’s Duet for lute and harp, Andersson and McGuire handling with seasoned aplomb the work’s three-dance chain, the whole lasting about 4 minutes, with little variety of dynamic inflexion.

Russell’s arrival onstage brought a novel strand to the mix, largely because this singer eschews the peculiar habit adopted by some singers of works a century either side of this period; to wit, aiming for a near-genderless purity with minimal vibrato, an avoidance of dramatic possibilities and a concentration on purity of line – no swooping, no audible breaths, no distinct plosives.   Russell took her four Lanier songs as scenes, the settings of Thomas Carew’s No more shall meads and Mark how the blushful morn infused with a warm vigour of attack, reaching even more intense levels in Campion’s Fire, fire and the vivid bite of Neither sighs, nor tears, nor mourning.  The mezzo entered into each song’s emotional world and, while the effect could be over-pronounced in intensity, the works spoke clearly, each one taking the listener on a short trek as engrossing as a Schubert lied if more reminiscent of an extended recitative than a lilting folk-song.

Johnson’s setting of the Ben Jonson lyric Have you seen but a white lillie grow was the best-known piece on this program, Russell giving two verses and hence a chance to take in her security of pitch at the lyric’s climax and the flexibility of tessitura while her accompaniment was relatively thin with lute and theorbo.  Woods, rocks and mountains, possibly/probably by Shakespeare, also gained from a more direct voice, its Dowland-like downward falls and hopeless repetitions of one note speaking cogently of love’s despair in this interpretation, rather than communicating a well-bred, light soporific depression.

For O let us howl some heavy note, a rough-edged invitation from a madman in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, Russell took relish in the chromatic rises that illustrate the character’s unbalanced state and found plenty of room for near-onomatopoeic imitations as the air moved from ‘beasts and fatal fowl’ to some not-too-quiescent swans greeting their own extinction with placidity.  Even in the benign context of a comfortable evening recital in Melbourne’s salon, this piece holds an uncomfortable force that Russell conveyed with a full-bodied and mobile style of execution.

Concluding with five of the Playford dances, the band again illustrated its elasticity, a wealth of bass strings resonantly rhythmic and, for a bonus, Ruth Wilkinson took up her recorder to cut through the string textures, focusing your attention on the the simple but infectious brio of the tunes on which these players built a rousing harmonic ambience, a window into (musically, at least) more simple and clearer-speaking times.