First, concerts I went to.
1. Australia Ensemble 14 March Raising Sparks
As usual, I went with my old friend, P. This was the Australia Ensemble’s season opener with guest artists Alice Giles, harp and Fiona Campbell, mezzo soprano. The program was:
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937): Introduction and Allegro (1905)
Arnold BAX (1833-1953): Harp Quintet (1919)
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924): Piano Trio in D minor Op. 120 (1922-3)
James MACMILLAN (b 1959): Raising Sparks for mezzo soprano, flute, clarinet, harp, piano and string quartet (1997).
David Stanhope conducted the MacMillan.
I enjoyed the Ravel the most, even though it is a shamelessly written-to-order promotional piece for a new model of harp which reflects Ravel’s compositional practice at the beginning of his career rather than where he went later. Harriet Cunningham of the SMH was less enthusiastic but she wasn’t sitting as close to the harp as I was. Sometimes luscious sound is its own reward. (It would be nice to say that conversely making a beautiful sound with crap music is also a harpist’s tragedy but I’m not sure things work like that.)
The ensuing Bax was a bit of an anticlimax, mainly because the harp was further away. The Fauré met (reasonably high) expectations, save that rather a lot of it was written in unison for cello and violin which seems odd for a trio. The MacMillan was fascinating and Fiona Campbell did a great job but towards the end it became less fascinating as it went on a bit.
If I had to start taking MacMillan’s ideas seriously I don’t think I could. It’s one thing to tolerate guff from someone long-dead such as Wagner but I am less tolerant of my own contemporaries.
2. Sydney Symphony Orchestra 21 March
This featured Janine Jensen (violin) and her conductor husband, Daniel Blendulf, with the Brahms violin concerto in the first half and the Sibelius Fifth Symphony in the second. I think that’s a pretty solid program. A piece by Nigel Butterley marking his eightieth birthday was a bonus. Though hardly flashy (it was commissioned by the Ku-ring-gai Philharmonic, a “community” orchestra) this grew on me as it went. It is too long ago for me to say anything else intelligent about the Brahms and Sibelius (which is not meant to be a self-congratulation that I have said anything intelligent about the Butterley) other than that I remember Mr Blendulf as a young man in a hurry when he got the bit between his teeth although JJ more than matched him in the Brahms finale.
3. Louis Lortie in recital at Angel Place, 13 April
This program was entirely made up of preludes, by, in turn, Faure, Scriabin and Chopin. The Fauré were a bit of a mixed bag (the most amiable was reminiscent of Kitty-Waltz from “Dolly”), the Scriabin were a revelation and the Chopin the most familiar and probably for that reason the most enjoyable.
4. 18 April – Australia Ensemble My Twentieth Century
Again, to this with P and her music-student son, this time on some kind of special offer to Sydney Youth Orchestra members in honour of Dimity Hall and Julian Smiles having recently performed the Brahms double concerto with them. The program was:
Martin BRESNICK (b 1946): My Twentieth Century (2002)
Peter SCULTHORPE (1929-2014): Irkanda IV (1961) arr. by the composer for flute and string quartet
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937): Duo for violin and cello (1920-22)
Elliott CARTER (1908-2012): Esprit rude, esprit doux (1985)
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934): Piano Quintet in A minor Op.84 (1918)
The Bresnick, for string quartet, flute and piano, is one of those pieces that requires the musicians to speak portions of a text, in this case leaving their instrumental places and stepping up to the microphone to say their allotted portions of a poem reproduced here. So I was trepidatious on two counts – musicians speaking and mixture of amplified and acoustic sound. It turned out there was no need for my trepidation – none of the speaking was cringe-making and it wasn’t too loud, and the device of the speaking also provided a neat means of varying the texture as in turn a different instrument was excised from the ensemble. The music itself was a kind of mild semi-post-minimalism. I enjoyed it.
I wasn’t so sure about the Sculthorpe. Is there no limit to how often the late PS could repackage essentially the same music? Sculthorpe right now basks in a kind of post-obit afterglow but after watching some of the television manifestations of it (especially the party scene featuring a young Alan John and even younger Jonathan Mills bashing away in piano duo) I wonder how long this will endure now Sculthorpe isn’t here to be so Charming to Everyone. I know I am going out on a limb here.
In the second half the Elliott Carter was short but invigorating and the Elgar was satisfying.
5. Sydney Symphony, Des Knaben Wunderhorn & Nutcracker Act II – 8 May
Mark Wigglesworth conducted.
I was keen to get to this because DkW via Schwarzkopf & Fischer-Dieskau and Szell was my point of entry to Mahler, when in my teenage years we still thought of him as a slightly recondite but definitely groovy and for-the-cognoscenti composer. Berlioz was another in the same category and thinking back I’d say LP recordings of the 60s and 70s had a lot to do with it.
Oddly enough, DKW does not seem to get onto the SSO’s roster so often these days. The latest Sydney performance the program notes identified was not by the SSO but by the VPO on their last visit, and the 2010-11 SSO Mahler-fest did not extend to it. Natalie Shea’s program note for Symphony Australia (adapted for the this occasion and lacking any explanation of the selection of songs in the concert and explaining only by omission their sequence and assignment to particular singers) dated back to 2002. DKW seems to have been relegated to Mahler-lite and crowded out by the symphonies and the more heavy-duty orchestral songs.
For this performance, the SSO supplemented the set in its final form with “Urlicht” now better known as part of the “Resurrection” Symphony.
The songs were divvied up between Caitlin Hulcup, mezzo, and Randall Scarlata, baritone. Ms Hulcup is an Australian with a growing career in Europe. I am not quite so sure how Mr Scarlatta got the gig. He is an American lieder specialist who has studied in Austria and does not at first glance seem an obvious choice for a set of orchestral songs in German in Sydney. Both singers sang without a book. Oddly, Scarlatta sang a different version of the text from that printed in the program and he seemed to have memorized a kind of typo at one point, singing “Heid” (heath/hedge) for “Held” (hero). I confess I listen to the music more than the words when I am there in the flesh and I only picked this up when I followed the text when listening to the broadcast at home. None of this detracted from my enjoyment of his performance on the night, and as one of the songs points out, the judge with the biggest ears may well be an ass.
The “Nutcracker” was an entirely different and very lush world. It was fun but hard to take very seriously (as if one should). The final waltz could not match the “Waltz of the Flowers” for impact.
6. Sydney Symphony “Romantic Visions” 16 May
The title for this program struck me as a bit of a misnomer. The works were:
Bartok Piano Concerto 3 (soloist Peter Serkin)
Brahms arr Schoenberg: Piano Quartet op 25.
The justification for the title seems to have been that the Wagner and the Bartok were both written (in different ways) for their wives, and the Brahms is a romantic piece (in a different sense).
The Wagner was upscaled to a full if small string orchestra, so both it and the Brahms/Schoenberg are arrangements and not in the symphonic mainstream and the Bartok is slightly left-of-centre. Sales were presumably slow on account of this as I was able to take advantage of an “invite a friend” offer and take D along (or rather, he took me, for reasons that will become obvious later in the song).
Clive Paget in (or rather on) Limelight has decried conductor Matthias Pintscher’s approach to the Siegfried Idyll as “somnolent.” You have to imagine you are Clara, waking (or possibly pretending to wake and be surprised) on Christmas Day (the first after you have managed to marry the father of three of your children) to music wafting up the stairs of your villa by a lake in Switzerland. Paget also called it glacial and I suppose this would not be inauthentic either if you think of the likely temperature. I can see what Paget meant but I didn’t mind it – the real question is whether it is good programming to start so gently. Even so, I felt the audience took it quite attentively in the spirit in which it was intended.
I enjoyed the Bartok – Serkin’s playing struck me as pointillist. D was less keen. He prefers his soloists younger and more romantic.
I have never entirely warmed to the Brahms/Schoenberg. It’s fun and the orchestra pulled out every stop in a cracking rendition but in the end as with people who go to a film and say “the book was better” I prefer the original quartet. I still enjoyed it – it would be stupid not to. The second and last movements were my favourites, which simply reflects my favourites in the quartet.
8. Peter Serkin in recital at Angel Place, 18 May
This was an unusual recital. It began with an arrangement of a motet by Josquin des Prez and a run of pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, followed by some variations by Nielsen to finish the first half. The second half opened with three rarities by Max Reger, dipped into Mozart with a Rondo in A minor (the slow one, not the Alla Turca) and finished off with Beethoven Op 90.
Serkin is billed as an “intellectual” player and the wannabe intellectual in me would like to be able to get right into this, but I found I couldn’t. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t capable playing, or that there weren’t bits I enjoyed, especially the Reger pieces which were unknown to me. The Nielsen variations were unknown to me too but I find it hard to believe that they should be played with such little variation of mood or tone.
Of course everybody’s playing is mannered in one way or another but what was wearing me down was a kind of intense scrupulosity, studded with micro pauses signifying intensity and refinement – sustained pointillism, I suppose. In the Mozart Rondo these threatened to bring the music to a stop altogether.
By the time we came to the Beethoven I was actually becoming irritated by this. This is stupid because after all it is still great music and I should have been able still to get a lot about it. Maybe my problem was an irritation that others (eg) were feeling that something incredibly profound was going on that I couldn’t share.
I shall listen again to the broadcast (advertised in the program as on 22 May but now set down for 31 May) and see if I can appreciate the playing better then.
Postscript, Sunday pm I did and I did. Still thinking about what made the difference second time around.
Maybe I was just having a bad Endone trip.
For completeness, there was one concert I had a ticket for but didn’t make.
9. SSO Louis Lortie, Y-P Tortelier, Mozart and Franck, 10 April
This was a concert I was very much looking forward to. Unfortunately, the day before I was diagnosed with a fractured knee I had been walking around on for a few weeks. Put in a brace and on crutches for which I had absolutely no capacity or stamina, I just couldn’t manage it. As I have since found, thanks in no small part to the helpfulness and professionalism of the front of house staff, it is not so difficult as you might think to get to a concert at the SOH when you are mobility-impaired.
P went in my place. Had I gone I would have been able to catch up with my friend and former high school music teacher, E, visiting from the far north coast for an orgy of big-city musical events. E enjoyed the concert so much that she went a second time on the Saturday afternoon instead of the Musica Viva Festival concert she was booked for, and said that the second time was even better.
Later, at home between Endone snoozes, I caught the second half of this concert on the radio, which was a consolation of sorts.