Warlock, The Curlew, Australia Ensemble

On Saturday night with my former piano teacher P to see the Australia Ensemble.

The program was:

+ Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930): The Curlew for tenor voice, flute, cor anglais and string quartet (1922) – words by Yeats

+ Elliott CARTER (b 1908): Con leggerezza pensosa – Omaggio a Italo Calvino (With thoughtful levity – Homage to Italo Calvino) for clarinet, violin and cello (1991) – 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth

+ Elliott CARTER (b 1908): Canon for 4, Homage to William [Glock] for flute, bass clarinet, violin and cello (1984) – 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth

+ Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928): String Quartet No 1 (The Kreutzer Sonata) – after Tolstoy (1923)

Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937): Piano Trio in A minor (1914)

The first half (marked +) was billed as “Homage to authors,” though William Glock was stretching it a bit for this category.

The bookends to that half, the Warlock and the Janáček, made a sombre pair. The Warlock (1922) inhabits a rather bleak pastoral world – it’s hard to describe – something which perhaps could be a GPO Films Unit documentary a few years later. Henry Choo – a singer I admire (seen last year as Almaviva, amongst other roles) – sang these well and with terrific composure – broken only by one high and loud note which came from nowhere near the end.

Warlock, incidentally, must be one of the most fictionalised ever composers in English literature. To quote Wikipedia (but a warning: you need to go there for any of these links to work):

An intriguing figure, Warlock has served to inspire several characters in English-language literature, among them: Coleman in Aldous Huxley‘s Antic Hay (1923), Roy Hartle in Osbert Sitwell‘s Those Were the Days (1938), Giles Revelstoke in Robertson DaviesA Mixture of Frailties (1958) and Maclintick in Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (1960) by Anthony Powell. D. H. Lawrence‘s use of Warlock as the model for Julius Halliday in novel Women in Love (1920) led to a threat of a lawsuit, followed by an out of court settlement.

I was amused to read in the program notes that at a rehearsal prior to the premiere, Janáček urged the quartet to play faster in order to struggle against the subjugation of women. Janáček had an unhappy marriage. It’s not clear what if anything he did to struggle against the subjugation of his own wife: most of his struggle in this area seems to have been against the subjugation of other men’s women.

The audience was smaller than usual and I am not quite sure why. Of course, it may have been the suddenly cold weather. Perhaps this is the time of year when retired academics fly to Europe to preempt summer, now that they are not confined by the semester break. Perhaps people don’t like sombre. Quite possibly they took fright at two pieces by Elliott Carter, though the audience is usually quite receptive to modern works. All the same, I have to confess that my own reaction when those two pieces came to an end involved a reflexive sense of relief – I found myself thinking “Well, they weren’t so bad at all.”

For the Ravel piano trio in the second half we had a Steinway, as the Ensemble’s Stuart & Sons piano is away for reconditioning. This made for a possibly more beautiful sound at the beginning, but a blurrier wall of sound at the big finish, which was less favourable for the violin and cello to be heard through.

The Ravel trio is one of the earliest piano trios with which I became familiar. The first movement is my favourite, followed by the second and then the third. The final movement includes some rhythmic reminiscence of the first, but for me doesn’t quite live up to it. I could just as easily have heard the entire first movement again instead – especially since first time round about a sixth of it was accompanied by a noisy husband and wife sweet-unwrapping team towards the end of my row. I know they were trying to do it quietly, but that just made them take longer. If only they had just ripped into it, like tearing an adhesive bandage off hairy skin. Otherwise, why can people not muffle the unwrapping crackles underneath a jumper or scarf, or even in a pocket?

Enough grumbling about that.

The other big news is that on Saturday I finally committed to buying a new bicycle, which I expect to pick up on Sunday. The bike I chose (I first looked at it a few weeks ago) cost rather more than the amount which D considered proper for me to spend. In the car on the way home from the shop, D rehearsed an amazingly comprehensive catalogue of what he considered to be expensive and ill-considered purchases where I had ignored his advice or acted without it. I expect I shall be hearing some more of this for a while, and of course, the bike will now be added to the series.

The ushers at the Australia Ensemble concert are recruited from musically inclined students at UNSW. I recognized one as a salesman at Inner City Cycles in Glebe who a few weeks ago almost succeeded in selling me a perfectly acceptable (including acceptable to D on the price front) bike – except that by the time I had made up my mind and returned they no longer had my size. In the circumstances, I didn’t think it was necessary to remind him where we had met, or mention that I had now made my purchase elsewhere.

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