Reading between the lines

The home hunt and preparatory purging of possessions continue.

Meanwhile, on Monday to hear Piers Lane in the SSO’s piano recital series at Angel Place.

The program was:

Debussy: Arabesques 1,2; Gardens in the Rain (Estampes); Reflections in the water (Images) L’Isle Joyeux

Bartok: Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs Op 20

Liszt – Venezia and Napoli from Years of Pilgrimage (supplement to Year II: Italy)


Chopin the 17 “authentic” Waltzes in order of composition

Piers Lane likes to chat.  He came up to a microphone at the front of the stage between each bracket.  In the first half the volume was set too loud and he was plagued by feed-back as he spoke.  Is there a stage manager?  Shouldn’t some technician immediately adjust this?  It shouldn’t be up to the artist, who has a lot on his mind, to dash off stage between brackets and ask for this to be attended to.  Angel Place is not a cheap hall to hire and the SSO, for that matter, is not an amateur concert manager.  Whoever’s responsibility it is, this was an extremely unsatisfactory and quite unprofessional situation. 

In addition, I suspect because of the level the volume was turned up to, there was a distinct and unacceptable ambient hiss emanating from the PA system.  It deprived the room of a proper silence into which the music could resonate in the spirit of object falling into water which is supposed to set of the ripples inspiring Debussy’s Reflections.

The risk of this occurring is just precisely one of the reasons why I am not keen on concert talking.  The thing I particularly cannot understand is why in this post-valve era, speaker systems cannot just be turned off – even at the price of a momentary pop or click.  But no, they and their operators seem to be like diesel engines and their drivers, and cannot bear interruption.

Mercifully, in the second half the hiss abated (though not totally) and the feedback was cured.  It was such a relief and made a world of difference.  I’m guessing it was as simple a matter as turning the volume down but I don’t pretend to know if that was the case – that’s what I expect the people running the concert to know.

The program notes told us that the original first half offered by PL was a later Schubert sonata.  This was ruled out by the SSO because it had been heard in the series too recently.  If that was the true reason, I think this underestimates the preparedness of the audience to hear varied interpretations.  For myself I would have preferred a single work to balance the small works (albeit all of a kind) which the Waltzes comprised as the second half. 

I thought the best playing in the first half was in the Bartok, but it may just be because that is the piece I know and like least.  I’ll return to the Debussy later.

Lane divided the Waltzes into brackets of 6, 6 and 5.  This meant three chatty introductions.  These were quite interesting even if (to labour the point) for me they interrupted the spell.  However, Lane was not always a reliable informant.  He drew a parallel between Opus 18 (often entitled Grand Waltz Brilliante) and Weber’s “Introduction to the Dance” which is fair enough, and added that it was in the same key as the Weber.  The Chopin is in E flat major; last time I looked the Weber is in D flat major. They do share an introduction on the dominant – maybe that’s what he was thinking of.

Lane’s Chopin probably wasn’t playing which would have pleased Chopin purists – he is a bit short on aristocratic restraint, but for me it was at a level of polish way above pretty much all of the first half, and I don’t think it was the relief from the hiss which accounted for this. I enjoyed it. For an encore, he played a waltz by Dohnyani, which suited his natural exuberance and provided probably the most brilliant playing of the evening.

But back to the Debussy. Writing in the Herald about this recital, Peter McCallum had this to say:

“Lane’s finger work was fluid. He tended to avoid the exploration of very soft textures.”

Soft textures are a pretty big thing in Debussy. That’s really a polite way of saying his Debussy was too loud. At least, that’s what I thought. Mind you, such nuances seem to have been entirely been missed by the subeditor responsible for the headline to the review, which is: “Master’s nimble reading breathes life into Debussy.”

On Friday to hear the SSO, this time with Lane as soloist and Hugh Wolff conducting.

For a change, I sat in the circle, in rather splendid front row seats. I went with Dx, who lives in Europe and hadn’t been to the SOH for 4 or so years. The present state of the interior of the SOH struck him as very “tired,” and even allowing for the temporary nature of the current acoustic experiments, particularly daggy. “What’s with the masking tape across the panels closest to the circle?” he asked. He has a point. More specifically, he decried the utterly unsatisfactory piano sound. His diagnosis: there are no overtones; all percussion sounds are harsh with a bit of rebound (which includes the piano) and the piano itself always struggles to be heard over the orchestra. This necessarily constrains what a pianist can do when playing with the orchestra.

The program was:

Debussy Images, 1 and 2 (why not also 3?)
Vine – Piano Concerto No 2 (premiere)
Brahms – Symphony No 2

I’m going again tonight in my usual seat so I’ll give an acoustic second opinion after that. Suffice to say that the Vine did not strike me as particularly interesting writing for the piano – there was rather a lot of alternating hand work (that is, offset chords or octaves between the hands which are analogous to broken octaves) rather than figuration or interesting textures. It seemed copy-book/pattern-book stuff.

Peter McCallum said:

Carl Vine’s Piano Concerto No.2, receiving its first performance from Piers Lane, moved, like several of his works, from veiled shadows to bright light. Vine’s mould with concertos is familiar and successful with audiences. The first movement started with close-textured pianistic arabesques over lugubrious lower chords, moving to more sharply rhythmic straightforward music for the main section.

In the second, after some raw opening brass chords, Lane played dreamy arpeggios against a heavy, somewhat bovine tuba melody with a fleet central section on pizzicato strings and upper woodwind. The last movement reconceived some of the first movement’s ideas in broad daylight.

Lane’s professionalism communicated the work’s gestures with clarity and power.

In the letters column of the SMH, Peter Fyfe of Erskineville has complained:

Several paragraphs on the familiar work of a dead European, but only a couple on the stunning world premiere of an exciting new Australian piano concerto that was barely mentioned in the advertisements (”Wolff feasts on delicacy as intricate interpretation shows off its true colour”, August 24).

It is as if the Herald reviewer and the Sydney Symphony marketing department are conspiring to kill off Australian music. Shame.

Well, McCallum isn’t responsible for the orchestra’s publicity, but I think Mr Fyfe has failed to read between the lines. My gloss: Vine’s concerto made its appeal to the audience in ways that were fairly predictable and not terribly interesting and Lane gave it the performance it deserved.

I enjoyed it all, of course – why wouldn’t I? If I were a critic, I’d suggest that the brass in the Brahms was a little too – ah, how shall I say? – forthright and the whole effect was a bit on the Bismarckian Triumphlied side of Brahms for my taste.

Maybe I’ll feel differently after tonight’s second hearing.

[Postscipt: I did, up to a point.]

One Response to “Reading between the lines”

  1. CWG « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] Stumbling on melons « Reading between the lines […]

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