Genius at one (or two) removes

MOZART & J. C. BACH

The Melbourne Musicians

St. John’s Southgate

November 15, 2015

Lawrence Dobell

Finishing their annual subscription series, director Frank Pam and his chamber orchestra paid tribute to one of the more congenial musical friendships between two great composers.  Mozart and Johann Christian Bach met in London in 1764 and became fast friends, the younger composer claiming that the English-based youngest son of Johann Sebastian had a formidable influence on his instrumental writing. Both blazing successes at moments in their careers, the two men died in penurious circumstances.

As a sign of his esteem, Mozart arranged three of the elder writer’s keyboard sonatas as concertos and performed then on his trans-European tours, providing the originals with his own orchestral framework. Taking this one step further, the notable Israeli clarinetist Yona Ettlinger re-arranged the Mozart score, changing the solo part to fit his own instrument and adding a third movement to the original two, neatly transplanting the second Allegro from Bach’s own Sonata Op. 17 in E flat.  This was the piece that the Musicians performed yesterday with soloist Lawrence Dobell, principal clarinet with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

As you’d expect, the reading was distinguished by a fluent, polished line from Dobell, at home with the mutated galant style that came across despite the permutations intervening between the original and this reworking published in 1974.  Easy in its melodic flow,  the concerto makes no extraordinary demands, not even in the cadenzas which Dobell dispatched  effortlessly; but then, they are brief, I suspect because there is little thematic matter to be exploited.

Appearing a little later in Mozart’s life, the Symphony No. 27 is the last of six written in 1773 and precedes the superb work in C Major of the following year, the opening phrases of which are forever associated for many of us with the Music Lovers’ Hour hosted on ABC Radio by Dr. A.E. Floyd, one-time organist/choirmaster of St. Paul’s Cathedral and a Melbourne musical institution as well as a Mozart enthusiast at a time when the composer’s works were rarities on concert programs.  Not that the G Major K. 199 suffers in comparison but the jump in assurance between the two symphonies is noticeable.

Pam’s orchestra made a hearty start to it, the violins bracing in their triple-stop chords and observing the dynamic niceties set up by their conductor.  The body was blessed by pairs of forthright flutes and horns, the latter making their presences felt in tutti passages and coping manfully with parts that rarely challenge a modern instrument.   The second movement’s progress could hardly be faulted in terms of articulation although the strings, especially when muted, sounded plump, not quite altogether on the beat.  In fact, the rhythmic factor presented the only real difficulty in all three movements; at the cross-over points before repeats, everyone seemed hesitant and the players needed to keep closer focus on Pam during the Presto-finale: a model of transparency demanding a confident and exact attack.

Appearing in another work from the teenage Mozart, young violinist Jackie Wong performed the solo part in the G Major Concerto, a light-hearted masterpiece for the most part calculated to flatter an executant’s suppleness of delivery and asking for a clear, light-coloured product.  At 14, Wong obviously sees the score as an exercise in bravura, tending to make heavy weather of her outer movements, which is understandable in passages of semiquaver figuration.  When the solo violin has the floor, however, there is little point in a weighty dynamic, particularly as Mozart kept his accompaniments discreet.  In the melting Adagio, Wong made a better impression, letting her line speak without over-insistence; a welcome contrast to the first Allegro‘s exposed cadenza where she urged so hard that the danger became one of tuning.  The Musicians coped well enough with their responsibilities, apart from a cracked horn note or two, and the trio of second violins showed an admirable consistency throughout.

To complement the woodwind concerto, Pam finished the afternoon with one of Christian Bach’s Op. 3 sinfonias, the last of the set of six and, like most of this program’s content, in the gratifying and congenial key of G Major.   Three movements in the space of ten minutes left little time for absorption except that the bookend Allegros sounded confident while the middle G minor-centred Andante found out occasional intonation problems in the top strings.  Still it made a brisk, optimistic conclusion to the year’s work from this always-ambitious body of performers.

Out one door and in another

SPANISH CONNECTIONS

La Compania

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

November 14, 2015

Giving its last recital at the MRC before moving next year to the glass-and-wood complex of Federation Square’s Deakin Edge, this estimable period-music ensemble  opted for an all-Hispanic program,  one that continually shot off in southern colonial directions. Director Danny Lucin‘s cornetto and an instrumental septet played a few instruments-only pieces but much of Saturday evening’s recital consisted of sung material in which La Compania supported soprano Cristina Russo.

                                                             La Compañia (image: lacompania.com.au)

This was a mini-tour in 14 segments, some of them quite short, of Spanish music at home and in the American colonies which stretched from religious music of the early 16th century to Peruvian dances constructed close to the start of the 19th.  Of course, the physical provenance of the works was reflected in their categorization, religious and secular, with a fair mixture of both.  To all of it, the Companians gave their best with crisp attack and a rousing realization of this music’s rhythmic vehemence.

To begin, the players worked through some diferencias on an anonymous theme called Las Vacas; basically, a ground bass with elaborations on top  or around its progression which gave a sample of the sound-colours on offer: Lucin’s rapid bright line, Mitchell Cross’s all-purpose dulcian (a precursor of the bassoon), the supple sackbut ((early trombone) of Glen Bardwell, David Irving‘s refined violin, and two supports in the gamba of Victoria Watts and Rosemary Hodgson‘s alternating vihuela and guitar.  Icing on this particular cake came from percussionists Denis Close and Christine Baker, both prominent contributors throughout with drums, tambours, gourds, and eventually the inevitable castanets.

Russo’s pure timbre soon became a single strand in an anonymous Dennos lecencia senores, a cachua or round dance from Peru where the whole ensemble participated, not aggressively but making enough of a sonorous edifice to background all but a powerfully projected voice.  This overpowering also took place in a villancico by Antonio de Salazar, Seville-born but a Mexican composer.   His Tarara tarara qui yo soy Antoniyo continued the Christmas theme that ran through the program but, with both sackbut and dulcian out of the mix, Russo enjoyed more exposure, her clear timbre taking prime focus and the text became decipherable.

Two pieces by Gaspar Fernandes – born in Portugal but moved to Mexico and Guatemala – showed a lively invention, if also presenting the players with a real challenge in A belen me llego, tio with its punctuating syncopations that did not quite succeed in their effectiveness when essayed by an ensemble like this one with widely differing dynamic possibilities; from what I’ve heard, the piece works much better when singers – either individual or several to a line – are involved.

A brace of Francisco Guerrero pieces succeeded more satisfactorily, Russo enjoying the backing of Hodgson alone for the opening to Virgen Sancta, another Christmas villancico with a surprisingly mobile melody line.  Moving back to Peru c. 1780, the anonymous El Congo brought to mind a late Baroque mariachi band with bright triplets and an arrangement rich in upper reeds seasoned with a catchy percussion support.

Fernandes appeared further down the program with an Assumption song, Vaya, la princesa, vaya, which might have enjoyed more impact if the vocal line had not been doubled, as was the case in No hay mas dulce alegria where three instruments took on that duty in turn.   A return to the ambience of the night’s opening, Santiago de Murcia’s Los Imposibles is a passacalle which seems to follow the same bass as the Las Vacas tune.   More familiar to me in a guitar solo setting, this made comfortable listening thanks to some deft interwoven solos.   And to conclude, the company played yet one more Peruvian anonymity: Nino il mijor, another cachua of infectious if restrained jubilation at the presence of the Christ child.

Once more, La Compania here unveiled some treasures to which it brought a distinctive approach.  If the soprano was treated as just one thread in the group’s complex, at least she remained audible, even under some assertive, full-bore output from her colleagues.   Nevertheless, many factors generate delight when hearing this company, the most significant being its unique combination of finesse and spirit, especially when the ensemble girds up its loins for one last variant.  Now for a new home and three nights of further discoveries in 2016.

Clara and Dulcie meet the Eggner boys

EGGNER TRIO

Musica Viva

Melbourne Recital Centre

November 10, 2015

                      Eggner Trio

Over a fairly short period, the Eggner Trio – comprising brothers Georg, Florian and Christoph – has become a familiar presence on Musica Viva‘s annual guest artist schedule.   After winning the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition twelve years ago, the ensemble then visited Australia on three further occasions.  This fourth time, the programs on offer both begin with a Schumann work – one from Robert, the other composed by wife Clara – and then the nights centre on Dulcie Holland‘s 1944 Piano Trio; one of those scores more talked about and extolled in the abstract than performed.  The final offering brings matters back into the mainstream for any patrons rattled by the preceding novelties: either Dvorak’s Dumky or the magniloquent Brahms in B Major.

For their competition final, the Eggners played the major repertoire: Mendelssohn in D minor in the opening rounds, keeping the big Schubert Trio in E flat for the finals and in the process edging out the Ondine Trio who performed the same work with – I thought – a good deal more conviction.  In 2005, Schubert in B flat – the more popular one of the pair – enjoyed an urbane airing, along with Schumann in F Major and a refined version of Ross Edwards’ Trio, which had been a compulsory work for all competitors in the 1999 competition.  Three years later, the ensemble recycled their competition Mendelssohn D minor, made an ardent experience out of Debussy’s G minor trio – dismissed by some commentators as over-hyped juvenilia – and ran through Beethoven’s first work in the form.  I missed the 2011 programs, happily handing them over to another reviewer as the content looked, for once, unappealing.

Clara Schumann’s solitary chamber work has a solidity of structure and melodic straightforwardness that prove eminently satisfying, particularly when given as finished a performance as the Eggners provided.  The outer movements show a clear-eyed approach to organization, the finale intriguing for its linear interplay.  But the work picks up real interest in its Scherzo and the following Andante – simple in its turn from placidity to crisis and back again but crafted with skill and giving each player an opportunity to shine.

A major figure in Australian musical life, and not just because of her involvement with the Australian Music Examinations Board, Dulcie Holland studied in London before World War II and the Trio, written after her return to Sydney, shows obvious marks of her training.   What shouldn’t surprise, but does, is a firm individuality in the composer’s style; the writing is based on a kind of sophisticated diatonicism but with enough edge to avoid any traces of triteness.  Listening to the threatening initial theme of the opening Allegro, you can’t avoid comparisons with similar ominous passages in the work of John Ireland, Holland’s teacher, but the curves and inflexions remain Holland’s own, unnervingly reminding you of the subterranean lurching of the E minor Shostakovich Trio written in the same year.

Holland’s score has no slow movement; rather a succession of three fast segments which found amiable exponents in the Eggner players, cellist Florian a committed voice throughout, probably investing more plosive force than the piece needs.   As with the preceding Schuman, the reading’s main impact was positive thanks to the group’s warm polish, the ensemble clean and its lines balanced, if every so often violinist Georg showed traces of the reticence which has figured in some of his earlier Musica Viva appearances.

With the Brahms Trio No. 1, these musicians demonstrated a control and spacious breadth that informed each page.  Many groups have turned this masterwork into a sort of piano concerto and admittedly the keyboard writing is temptingly hefty; the competitions that come around every two years invariably have one set of ambitious executants making a sweat-soaked welter out of these bracing pages.  The Eggner approach showed remarkable restraint, the driving climaxes pronounced with weight rather than hysteria, pianist Christoph treating the high passage work in the Scherzo with unfussed celerity, all three members taking time with those slow, melting arches that distinguish the Adagio, as do  its sustained moments of dangerous exposure: a moving conclusion to an intelligent, original recital.

The Eggner Trio will play again in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on Saturday November 21 at 7 pm.

Full of the warm South

RICCARDO MINASI

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

November 7-8. 2015

Riccardo Minasi

Saturday’s fine concert from Paul Dyer and his chamber orchestra was controlled by visiting virtuoso Riccardo Minasi, billed as the ‘fearless Italian Baroque violin’ – which is fine, if you have an apt attribution of what it is to be fearless.  For sure, Minasi bolts into action at the opening bar to every allegro; in his negotiation of rapid semiquaver figuration, nothing stands in the way; even with mediocre material, he remains in full-throttle delivery mode, urging his Brandenburg colleagues to maintain their impetus.

This style of performance is not exclusive to Minasi, but it is hard to find in many other period performances.  An outstanding instance of this approach first struck me when Il Giardino Armonico played their initial tour in Hamer Hall, a program in which machismo and individual flamboyance refreshed many well-worn pages.  Minasi operates with less flashiness but the results he brings out are similarly dust-free.  Mind you, the Brandenburgers have a head start in this style, as artistic director Dyer asks for the same clarity and vigour from his forces in every program that he himself leads.

Minasi compiled a set of nine works for his visit, all written by composers who flourished in Naples and who lived and flourished during that impossible-to-pin-down period of the Late Baroque.  Some of the names were familiar – Durante, Jommelli, Leonardo Leo; others were complete novelties, so much so that Dyer indicated that some of these scores by de Majo, Ragazzi, Manna and Fiorenza were possibly being heard outside Naples for the first time.  Arcane they might have been in provenance but their impact was continuously benign, the usual developmental tropes showing, and giving in to, the potential for shifting unexpectedly; Durante’s G minor Concerto No. 2 maintained this surprise element throughout its admittedly brief length.

Sharing the workload to some extent, Minasi brought members of the ABO strings to prominence in the evening’s second half with a 4-violin concerto by Leo in which he and guest concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen performed in duo-opposition to Matt Bruce and Ben Dollman,  The final Allegro to this remarkably appealing score produced the evening’s most brilliant playing, a style galant promenade loaded with compressed energy and delivered with a flawless sheen.  Much the same immediacy and elegance followed in a three-violin sinfonia by Nicola Fiorenza, Minasi and Dollman partnering Matthew Greco in a small treasure, all too brief in its last three movements.

Other moments had their drawbacks.  Both horns and oboes were exposed in an E flat sinfonia by Gennaro Manna, the woodwind pitching noticeably off-centre in the work’s Trio; the brass were required to carry out some rapid trilling in this piece’s first movement which sounded laboured.  But then the program’s final offering, Jommelli’s Sinfonia from the oratorio La Betulia liberata found both oboes generating an excellent spritzig timbre while the sinfonia from Domenico Sarro’s Demofoonte remains in the memory for a series of sustained single-note crescendos from the horns, the string ferment riding the blast.

Minasi made a strong apologist for this neglected music from Naples which, like much of the South then as now, has always been denied a fair shake of the national parmesan cheese dispenser.   In this enterprise, he enjoyed unstinting support from the ABO musicians who played with a confidence and flair that reflected the character of their gifted, personable guest.

Split, but not at the ends

INDIVISIBLE VIOLIN & PIANO

Ji Won Kim and Young Kwon Choi

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

October 25, 2015

Both of these artists have considerable reputations.   Ji Won Kim took out the 2009 ABC Symphony Australia Young Performer Award and is currently a member of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s first violins, emerging more often than many of her colleagues to front the odd concerto or recital.

Ji Won Kim (image: mso.com.au)

In 2012, South Korean pianist Young Kwon Choi gained the ABC Symphony Australia Young Performer Award in the piano section as well as capturing the Paul Landa Prize under the auspices of  Arts Council Australia and Musica Viva, since when he has performed and studied in the UK and Germany and is now resident and active in Seoul.

Young Kwon Choi (image: twitter.com)

For this collaboration, both artists began and ended indivisibly enough through duets, albeit constructs of wildly differing quality.   In between the Brahms G Major Sonata and Wieniawski’s Fantaisie brillante, the two went their separate ways.   Kim allied herself with Caleb Wright, a viola colleague from the MSO, for Johan Halvorsen’s Passacaglia, lifted from Handel’s Keyboard Suite No. 7 and extended when the arranger felt that the original variations needed amplification.  Both artists demonstrated impressive technical assurance, the fusion of lines well-contrived in the early Handelian pages, Kim relishing the firm flashiness of the latter variations.

For his part, Choi played the Chopin Ballade in F minor, the most intricately constructed and densely textured in the set of four.  Not that the work misfired, but the executant hurtled through pages that might have gained from more considered handling, particularly in the central development where the intended excitement relied on action-packed cascades of semiquavers while the intellectual changes rang thin.

The duo’s realization of the Brahms sonata, apart from a small fumble in the final Allegro molto moderato, came over with fine warmth of timbre and mutual responsiveness, Kim’s line a clear voice right from the warm-hearted opening, while Choi dovetailed with sensitivity in the work’s lyrically controlled paragraphs.

Wieniawski’s fantasy is an unabashed virtuoso exhibition for the violin based on themes from Gounod’s opera Faust.  Like most of the breed, it sounds exhilarating for the quick succession of technical fireworks that dominate its more vivid sections, notably the variant on Mephistopheles’ rollicking Calf of Gold aria-with-chorus and the Kermesse theme.  Kim vaulted through its demands with infectious brio, also finding a studied warmth for the piece’s central meditation on Gounod’s Act 3 love-duet.

In the recital’s short time-span, Kim and Choi began with the program’s finest music to represent the indivisible aspect of their partnership, but from then on their ways parted and even the flashy final duet proved something of a one-sided business with Kim occupying the limelight.  Nevertheless, the audience responded positively to the  musicians’ output and the exercise made an auspicious signpost in a fairly new initiative – well, new to me: the Marigold Southey Signature Series.