Grosse fugue

On Saturday night to the Australia Ensemble (@UNSW).

The first half was relatively slight. A flute quartet by CPE Bach and an arrangement of the Faure’s Dolly Suite by Ian Munro for (alto, according to the program note, which I read later – this passed me by when I was watching which is a bit inattentive of me) flute/piccolo and bass clarinet.

I really liked the “quartet” – played in fact by a trio – Geoffrey Collins on flute and Irina Morozova on violin; Ian Munro on piano subsumed both the original keyboard part and the continuo. It was a very agreeable work. What really struck me was a unanimity of style between all three players (just what was missing in last year’s JS Bach). Collins played a wooden flute.

Ian Munro’s arrangement of the Dolly Suite was more problematic. This odd instrumental figuration was obviously chosen with Collins and Catherine McCorkill, the ensemble’s regular clarinettist, in mind. The choice of a bass clarinet rather than an ordinary clarinet was presumably intended to free up the piano from perpetual custody of the bass line, but the lesser flexibility of the bass clarinet in its lower range limited the realisation of some of the original figuration.

As I have mentioned before, Catherine McCorkill has a distinctive playing style. Sadly, McCorkill has been out of action now for over a year after sustaining an injury playing in Salome at the end of 2012. McCorkill was replaced for this concert by Sue Newsome, who makes something of a specialty of the bass clarinet.

In his note on the arrangement, Ian Munro wrote:

Because of the fact that Cathy’s lovely music has been ringing in my head now for over a decade, and the esteem in which I hold her, and because of the difficult times she has been facing recently, I would like to offer this arrangement of Dolly to her in dedication, from a grateful and affectionate friend and colleague.

It will be scant comfort, and I apologise if it is a bit ungracious to Ms Newsome to make this observation, but I think this arrangement might have worked better if Cathy had been there, restored to her full powers. It must be a very difficult time for a musician to be unable to play for such a long period and I really hope McCorkill is able to make a recovery soon.

The second half was the serious music: Beethoven’s string quartet Op 130 played with the originally concluding Grosse Fugue.

“Serious music” – that’s a funny idea, isn’t it? It must mean something, if only because one can conceive of comic or light music. It’s definitely an idea which latches into that cluster of quasi-religious approaches to music which emerged in the nineteenth century and where the cult of Beethoven played a role. The late string quartets are a locus classicus of this. They have a reputation as being “difficult.”

I confess that for me that reputation cast a slightly portentous shadow over my reception of the work, and I felt also the players’ performance. Theirs was an almost onerous responsibility. How could they discharge the sacrament? I relaxed as things lightened up in the second and third movements and perhaps by some variation of the sympathetic fallacy I thought they did too.

We had a very long pause before the fifth, slow, movement, which then went straight into the fugue so that these two movements together felt like the really serious bit of the communion. The fugue was totally engrossing – pushing right at the limits of permissible dynamics and tone (especially on Dene Olding’s part) but all worth it. Exhilarating.

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