Recital’s insightful first half

STEPHEN HOUGH

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.  But 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 tintabulating 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, that 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.

 

Clara and Dulcie meet the Eggner boys

EGGNER TRIO         ***

Musica Viva

Melbourne Recital Centre

November 10

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.

Split, but not at the ends

INDIVISIBLE VIOLIN & PIANO     ***

Ji Won Kim and Young Kwon Choi

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

October 25

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.