Hamburger Ensemble 2

On Saturday night to the Australia Ensemble.

This was the second time that day I had headed east along Gardiners Road. In the afternoon, I went to Wylie’s Baths for a swim. In between, the heavens opened and the box gutter at the back of our house spectacularly failed. There was another downpour in the first half of the concert. The John Clancy Auditorium is not acoustically rain-proof, and in the first half the music had to contend with the rumble of rain on the roof, as well as the occasional thunderclap.

Roger Covell appeared at a microphone just before the concert began to tell us that the new Steinway had arrived, by air [!], just the day before. He acknowledged the support of UNSW vice-chancellor Fred Hilmer. For all we know, Hilmer could have brought the piano back as part of his excess-baggage allowance.

We had to wait until the second half of the concert to hear it. The first half was:

Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809): String Quartet Opus 77 No.1 Hob. III:81 (1779) – 200th anniversary of the composer’s death

Brett DEAN (b 1961): Winter Songs for tenor voice flute (doubling piccolo and alto flute), oboe (doubling cor anglais), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), bassoon and horn (2000)

P and I had a little laugh when the string quartet came on at the beginning of the concert. There was a whisper behind us and it was true, Irina Morozova has regained a little of the weight she shed about two years ago. She doesn’t look any the worse for that, though perhaps the dress she was wearing was acquired in the intervening leaner years.

I really enjoyed the Haydn. How can one not? – especially when played so well. Dene Olding emitted the odd little squeak, but that’s because he is a bit of a risk-taker. I sit close, so I could overcome the rumble of the rain by occasionally cupping a hand to my ear (it’s amazing the difference this makes, though I guess if you had bigger ears all the time you would just get used to it). When there was a thunder-clap, Dene made a little face and a kind of chuckle went through the audience: we were all in this together in a good-humoured Haydnesque kind of way.

As Thomasina has commented, the Dean, a setting of poems by e.e.cummings (Covell prefers “E.E.”) was more about the wind instruments than the singing or the poems. P felt the same, and I was forced to agree at interval that Serenade for tenor, horn & strings it ain’t. Paul McMahon, the tenor, had a bit of a thankless task getting wound up about dogshit in suburban slushy snow in the first movement; the second and third movements were stiller and more “poetic,” with the obligatory thoughtless cough half a second before the end as the importance of stillness was being proclaimed. It was even more of a shame than in the Haydn that the rain noises obscured the full character of some of the more novel wind writing.

At interval, the weather cleared, and Robert Johnson and Dene Olding returned with Ian Munro at the new piano for the Brahms Horn Trio.

In the pre-concert leaflet which is sent to all subscribers, Professor Covell went into not inconsiderable contortions to explain that, although Brahms specifically asked for a natural “Wald-” horn, Robert Johnson would be playing the modern variety. The long and the short of it was really that the modern horn is more reliable, and even that, God knows, is unreliable enough. (The piece itself is appreciably shorter than, say, the admittedly much later clarinet trio, which I take to be in part owing to Brahms’s recognitions of the difficulties facing the horn player.)

The downside of this, or so it seemed to me, is that the tone of the modern horn is thicker than the natural horn, though this is probably more a question of the bore than the mechanism or lack of it per se. The question of balance in such an ensemble is tricky enough, but I was left wondering if it would have been otherwise had a natural horn been used, especially in the first three movements, where the horn felt a bit like a bull in a china shop. Certainly, that’s not because of any failing by Robert Johnson: the recording I listened to beforehand also sounded this way. Only in the last movement, when everyone was letting rip, did the balance really feel comfortable.

And the new piano? P’s and my consensus was “very smooth,” but beyond that this was not really the piece to tell much. Maybe that’s the thing about Steinways. They are so the norm that it just sounded like “a piano.” Obviously, the action is regular, the tone consistent. I can imagine the low chords in the slow movement having a bit more air in them on the Stuart. There was a hint of more to come when Mr Munro allowed it to let loose a deep Rolls-Royce-ish kind roar a couple of times in the last movement, but for the rest we will really have to wait and hear.

Fashion notes

For the Haydn, Dene Olding sported the thick-framed spectacles which have also been a feature of his recent SSO appearances. Perhaps he and Richard Miller, the SSO’s timpanist, have been to the same optometrist recently. For the Brahms, he changed to another pair, possibly in order not to eclipse Ian Munro and Robert Johnson. Or could some broader principle of sympathy be at work here? I’m told that in the lengthy criminal trial to which I have referred before, the jurors have started synchronising the colours of their outfits from day to day.

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