Wall of sound

On Saturday with my old friend P and her son, T, to hear the Australia Ensemble.

The bill of fare was:

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750):
Sonata in B minor for flute and keyboard BWV1030 (c1736)
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949):
Metamorphosen (Transformations) arr. Rudolf Leopold for string septet (1945)
Claude DEBUSSY (1861-1918):
Petite pièce (1910) and Première rapsodie (1909/10) for clarinet and piano
Francis POULENC (1899-1963):
Sextet for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano (1932/9)

Geoffrey Collins brought out a wooden flute for the Bach. It is a rehashing (after Bach started running the Collegium Musicale in the 1730s) of earlier works. It has an obbligato keyboard part (ie, written out rather than depending on continuo realisation) of some complexity. I thought that this overwhelmed some of the more delicate early-musicish mannerism with which Collins played the flute part, particularly in the first movement. Ian Munro played with the stick up. I don’t think that this was the problem (though P wasn’t happy with his almost unremitting use of the “soft” pedal to compensate) but something else about the style and its realisation didn’t entirely gell for me.

Strauss’s Metamorphosen was written in the dark days (for the Germans) towards the end of the war. It is a famously sombre and melancholy work in Strauss’s late late romantic style. The printed program quoted letters by Strauss bemoaning the destruction of, as well as Dresden and Hamburg, the Goethe-haus in Weimar. This last was news to me: the present Haus doesn’t show much sign of it and even allowing for the zeal of German post-war construction, this could only be so if not only the contents but also the furnishings and fittings had been spirited away for security during the war.

In order to realise for 7 players a piece originally written for 23 distinct solo parts, there was some sacrifice of the light and shade of the original – with only a few exceptions (as when the upper strings were silent) everyone had to play for pretty much all of the time. Sitting up close, as P and I do, we faced a veritable “wall of sound” – an intricate, intimate and very beautiful wall of string sound. The late romanticism is a pretty rich mix, and there was a point about two-thirds of the way through when I found it all becoming a bit much for me, as the music-induced swoon moved towards drowsiness. Then all of a sudden there was a sense of an impending ending (as the reminiscence of the Beethoven funeral march was made explicit) and I just didn’t want it to end.

The final chord was underscored by the profound infra/ultra-low C of the double bass. I’m not sure if one can literally do so but you felt you almost could hear the air between the vibrations (it’s about 33 per second). It felt like sinking into a very deep pillow. Well, a very soft wall.

Catherine McCorkill, the Ensemble’s regular clarinetist, is still apparently hors-de-combat. Philip Arkinstall filled in for the Debussy. It was a relief to revert to pianism rather than on-eggshells quasi-harpsichordism. The pieces were commissioned as test pieces for the Conservatoire – the first as a sight reading exercise and the second as something more demanding. The Rapsodie ends a bit like the violin sonata, but otherwise I was surprised that the style seemed much earlier Debussy than the composition date suggested. In terms of the German-French split of the program, this felt like a kind of sorbet, clearing the palate for the Poulenc which was to come – which is not meant to underestimate the piece or the fine performances. PA will be welcome back if CM’s indisposition continues.

The Poulenc was fun. The slow movement opens with a tune which seems quintessentially Poulencian in its charm and the harmonic corners it turns. The outer movements owed more to Poulenc’s jolly-jazzy mode. They bubbled over with ideas – almost too many to contain within the one piece. So much invention sounded like allusions, though I don’t know exactly to what.

The concert will be broadcast late in November and I hope to manage to catch it then.

We didn’t check the election result (T had voted for the first time) until after the concert, which was probably just as well.

4 Responses to “Wall of sound”

  1. ianmunro Says:

    The lid is not a volume control, as Lamar Crowson was known to say, and Geoffrey Parsons was equally scathing about pianists who played with the lid on half-stick. As for the use of una corda, it’s certainly a matter of taste, and can be over-used. Perhaps I do use it too frequently, because I enjoy the timbre, but ‘almost unremitting’? Ahem, hardly. But I will keep an ear out in future.

    You were right about the style question, though, but it’s unlikely Geoff would regard himself as ‘early-musicish’ (although he would enjoy the observation). We simply don’t have a very similar feel for Bach, so it’s not surprising that you didn’t feel that it gelled well. I don’t think it did, either!

  2. marcellous Says:


    Thanks for dropping by. I’m humbly honoured.

    You don’t need to spare the “una” corda on my account – that was P’s criticism, not mine (she’s with you that it is a timbre rather than a dynamic). OK, maybe I blurred the lines and overstated things with “unremitting.”

    I agree that GC is not an early music player: hence the reference to his “early musicish mannerisms.”

    As you may know if you’ve come here, I thought the style gelled much better in the CPE Bach this year.

    Please pass on my best wishes and hopes for recovery to CMcC.

  3. ianmunro Says:

    The funny thing is, I’ve only recently begun better to appreciate CPE by my wonderfully enthusiastic friend Howard Penny, but have adored JS since emerging from my early juvenile state of incomprehension and anti-parental rejection (literally, my father — not figuratively, Johann…). Perhaps it’s just that the very greatest composers seem to elicit the strongest personal responses from everyone, including players, who are most reluctant to give up anything of their personal feelings in interpreting them. I have always felt that the best thing the so-called ‘Early Music Movement’ gave us was a good old Spring clean of the accretion of a few centuries of arguably spurious traditions, which led to a great deal of stylistic entropy. Now, I begin to wonder whether the EMM hasn’t reached a stage of entropy itself, but that’s another matter.

    We’re all very concerned for Cathy, and hoping for her return. Thank you, I will pass on your thoughtful words.

  4. ianmunro Says:

    What I was trying to say, I think, was that Howard Penny has brought me to a recent appreciation of CPE Bach. That has to be one of the most muddled sentences I’ve written in a while…

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