Bathroom music

On Saturday night to the UNSW to hear the Australia Ensemble.

The program was:

+ Eugene GOOSSENS (1893-1962): Five Impressions of a Holiday Opus 7 for flute, cello and piano (1914)

+ Somei SATOH (b 1947): Vortex for flute, clarinet, harp, piano and percussion

+ Arthur BLISS (1891-1975): Clarinet Quintet (slow movement commemorating the World War I battle of the Somme) (1931)

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897): Sextet for strings No 1 in B flat, Opus 18 (1860)

The first three works made up the first half and were together billed as “Places and memories, Part 1.” Part 2 is to follow in October. I respect Roger Covell’s efforts in devising programs, but in this case he was driven to two paragraphs of convoluted cartwheels in the program note in an effort to bring the second piece, “Vortex,” within the scope of the concept. Well, a vortex must be somewhere, mustn’t it?

That didn’t matter at all, because Vortex (quite unlike what you might expect if you were thinking of Wyndham Lewis) was the stand-out work. It was very still and quiet, and involved such a luscious array of sounds – especially the harp, percussion (marimba and vibraphone with soft mallets) and clarinet, and with the piano always sustained. There was something (which I would now have to look up) in the program notes about altered tuning for the harp which was probably intended to sweeten the tritone and take the sting out of it – quite a lot of the piece seemed like a great big prolonged B7 chord. With all the echoing instruments, it was rather like bathroom music, and like singing in the bathroom, quite enchanting.

I am tempted to seek the Satoh out for some further listening, but I doubt if it will have the same magic just through speakers: the moment was the thing, albeit that a recording could give a memento.

The Eugene Goossens, written when he was 21, was a delightful and more-than-competent set of programatic vignettes from a francophone countryside: at the heart of it was the village church – a kind of less spooky and more every-Sunday engulfed cathedral.

The Arthur Bliss paled in comparison to these works, even though I tried to impress my listening to the third movement with respect for memories of the Somme and the war dead and suffering. If it weren’t for the instruction by Roger Covell in the program notes, I can’t say I would have guessed it.

In the second half, the Brahms sextet was enjoyable although it took a while to gell.

Brahms basically founded this form or style of ensemble, but it hasn’t really caught on.

One reason for this is that usually a string quartet needs to find two extra players, but it is hard for them to fit in. Emma-Jane Murphy, (sometime principal cellist with the ACO; sister of Aubrey Murphy, concertmaster of the AOBA ) emoted away like billy-oh in rather a Diana-Doherty-esque style with her fellow players, especially Yvette Goodchild, her fellow ring-in on viola II, and fellow cellist, Julian Smiles, but she didn’t seem to get much of a rise out of the others. There were moments when I wondered if less display of fellow feeling and more accurate participation (especially in the first movement when she seemed to lag on some accelerandi) might have been of less conspicuous assistance. Dimity Hall (Julian’s wife) looked rather unamused on Violin II, though she may have been soldiering on through illness [she took an inter-movement sip from a glass of water and sniffled a bit walking on and off for the bows], as were a few of the audience, rather less discreetly than that.

Another reason is that probably the ensemble is a bit middle and bottom heavy for the kind of projection that the more classical balance of a quartet allows and to which we are all accustomed. It’s a bit like Schumann orchestration, which gets rather a lot of (in my opinion undeserved) bad press.

There was a delightful moment later where both Irina Morozova and Dene Olding, playing in turn a little figure of alternating adjacent notes, each moved their heads gently from side to side with the music in precisely the same way. This isn’t showing off – it was obviously totally unconscious, but it spoke a great deal about the special intimacy of chamber music which I treasure. It helps to be close (I’m only 4 rows back) for this.

P, my usual companion at these concerts stayed at home laid low with the flu after a day of examining. She offered me her ticket, but I have pretty much given up trying to rope in others for concerts at short notice. My only acquaintance who might have gone in fact attends these concerts regularly already. D wouldn’t come: “I’m not crazy about that kind of music like you are,” he said. So I sat in P’s seat instead of mine (one seat to the left of mine and therefore just a bit more central) for a change. Variety, after all, is the spice of life.

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